The Montreal Symphony Orchestra will present a “passionate repertoire” during its visit to South Korea this week, the orchestra’s new conductor and musical director Rafael Payare said Tuesday.
The orchestra’s first overseas tour under the direction of the 42-year-old Venezuelan conductor consists of four concerts: Tuesday’s concert with South Korean concert pianist Sunwoo Yekwon, the winner of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, at Lotte Concert Hall in Seoul, and three concerts with three-time Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn, including a concert Wednesday at Seoul Arts Center.
“It’s the very beginning of a new journey. Because of the pandemic, the process has been quite a roller coaster. But now we are absolutely ecstatic and very grateful that our orchestra has been able to come here,” Payare said.
Paraye is an emerging conductor who started his music career as a French horn player. At the age of 13, Paraye joined El Sistema, a social action-oriented music education program that offers children and young people the chance to participate in musical ensembles.
He began conducting studies in 2004 with Jose Antonio Abreu Anselmi, the founder of El Sistema and a Venezuelan conductor, pianist and economist who received the 2020 Isang Yun Prize, awarded by the Isang Yun Peace Foundation.
In 2012, Paraye won first prize at the Malko Competition for Young Conductors.
After guest-conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 2018 and 2019, he was appointed as the next music director, officially starting from the 2022-23 season.
The first overseas tour, which is only visiting South Korea, has been realized despite difficulties due to lingering COVID-19 travel restrictions and soaring transportation costs, according to the production company InArts, which organized the concerts.
Tuesday’s program featured Ravel’s “La Valse” and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 performed with Sunwoo and Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” BB 82 and Debussy’s “La Mer.”
On Wednesday, Hahn and the orchestra will perform Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19. This will be followed by the orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 for the second half of the concert.
Hahn, who has been playing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 for a long time, said, “The pieces have a lot of quick changes, a lot of material in a very short time. The dynamics of the instruments in the song are different. I think it’s really crucial that we are able to play the pieces while feeling the dynamics between the various concepts.”
The Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s first performance in Korea was in 1989 when it performed the Korean premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” In 1997, the orchestra, led by Charles Dutoit, was joined onstage by soprano Sumi Jo and violinist Sarah Chang. In 2008, Kent Nagano led the orchestra in Korea.
The visit signals the return of more international orchestras to South Korea, but also holds a special meaning for the musicians who have faced performance cancellations and have had to play without live audiences.
“We’ve faced such struggles due to the pandemic but I think that only made us realize how important music and human interaction is. There’s a very special feeling when an orchestra goes on tour and the soloists also get to spend time together and make music together,” said Sunwoo, who was set to take the stage Tuesday night.
Hahn, who noted that it is her first time in Asia since the pandemic started, said it was a “return to something I missed a lot.”
For Payare, the last two years were a reminder of the importance of a live audience.
“We are all so focused on how the music should be played that we forgot about being interactive with the audience. We didn’t realize it was a privilege to play in front of the audience,“ the conductor said.
After two concerts in Seoul, the orchestra and Hahn will perform in Daegu on Thursday and in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, which hosts the annual Tongyeong International Music Festival, Friday.
Tickets for the concerts range from 70,000 won to 330,000 won.