Rafael Payare Leads the San Diego Symphony in Superb Concert of Mozart and Mahler

The romance between the San Diego Symphony and its new Music Director Rafael Payare continues to flourish. And San Diego audiences are responding with a spirited zeal that has taken residence in Copley Symphony Hall only since Payare’s advent.

Dorothea Röschmann [photo (c.) Harald Hoffmann]

Friday’s masterful program—Gustav Mahler’s probing Rückert Lieder surrounded by Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony—challenged the orchestra to play at the top of its game, and they met Payare’s challenge with aplomb.

From Payare’s first downbeat, Mozart’s familiar “Haffner” Symphony unfolded with a jubilant yet brilliantly focused energy that kept me at the edge of my seat. I have never heard this orchestra play Mozart with such elan and command—and I have been covering the ensemble since the latter days of Music Director Peter Eros.

In the Andante, the symphony’s second movement, Payare coaxed a gentle nobility from his players, stressing the clarity of Mozart’s inner voices that weave such a web of charm and delight. Payare’s large conducting gestures emphasize continual upward motion—as opposed to a heavy downbeat—which results in phrases that breathe easily and float upward. Even the speed of the bracing Finale retained this supple character, aided immensely by Payare’s thrilling dynamic contrasts and the orchestra’s sleek ensemble unity its and immaculate cutoffs.

Payare staked his claim on the Mahler repertory with his commanding account of the Fifth Symphony in the orchestra’s season-opening concert in October. With German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, Payare and the orchestra reveled in the composer’s rich emotional journey through these five orchestral settings of poetry by the 19th-century German poet Friedrich Rückert. Although Payare and the orchestra overpowered Röschmann in the opening song “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (“Look not into my songs”), the conductor found the just balance for the remainder of the song cycle.

As Röschmann caressed the phrases of “Um Mitternacht” (“At midnight”), Mahler’s wondrous song placed at the center of this cycle, she opened up its mystery, its existential trepidation, and the soul’s eventual triumph. The orchestral winds deftly illuminated the composer’s shimmering tapestry of night sounds. Winning in soft passages, Röschmann’s soprano displayed ample strength, notably in her upper range, in the song’s climax accompanied by the resounding chords of the full brass section.

English Horn soloist Andrea Overturf captured that quintessential Mahlerian resignation in her luminous descants in the final song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”), while the soprano and orchestra welcomed us into the song’s enveloping valedictory equanimity.

I do not see additional Mahler works on the 2019-2020 symphony schedule, but I hope Payare will prove generous in his Mahler programming in upcoming seasons. He displays a significant affinity to this composer.

Because 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, we will find ourselves waist-deep in Beethoven for the rest of this symphony season. Are the works of Beethoven so neglected that we need to stuff the season with as many of his compositions as possible? I will let my readers decide the answer to that question, but I think the answer is obvious.

Friday’s program featured the beloved Third Symphony in E-flat Major, the “Eroica.” As he did with Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony, Payare valiantly and brilliantly conducted the “Eroica” from memory.

Payare gave us a ferocious urgency in the expansive opening movement, followed by a stately but never ominous account of the “Marcia funebre” that follows. I particularly appreciated Payare’s subtly layered dynamics in the Scherzo—accomplished with incisive articulation from the string sections and mellifluous fanfares from the horns—and the sense of keen adventure that pervaded the Finale. The many rewards of the last movement included Principal Flute Rose Lombardo’s flamboyant solo and a rollicking orchestral fugue.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at the Jacobs Music Center in downtown San Diego on Friday, November 8, 2019. It will be repeated on Sunday, November 10, in the same venue.


  1. KMW on November 11, 2019 at 9:32 am

    Three thoughts re the Mahler sons:

    (1). Beautiful performance, much appreciated,
    (2). Projecting the English translation: fine. But is it too expensive to provide the German also?
    (3). LJMS, please note the audience enthusiastically responded to this vocal music

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