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“Once music is in you, you are transformed as a person.” That’s the motto of Rafael Payare, acclaimed maestro and guest conductor of this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts. Payare, music director of the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland, spoke at a pre-concert reception Jan. 18, hosted by the CSO Latino Alliance.

An alumnus of Venezuela’s famed music-education program El Sistema, Payare discussed the impact of his youthful training. “Classical music wasn’t something everyone could access so easily,” he said during a Q&A session moderated by Latino Alliance member Rina Magarici. “El Sistema brought music to the masses. In Venezuela, music education is free, and concerts are free, too. Like [awakening] a dormant beast, El Sistema brought out a love of classical music.”

The maestro is making his subscription-series debut, after a spectacular appearance with the CSO at the Ravinia Festival in 2015. For his CSO concerts this week, the program consists of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Mozart’s Bassoon Concert0 (with Keith Buncke, principal bassoon, in his CSO solo debut) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. (It repeats Jan. 20.)

Joining Maestro Payare for the Q&A session was CSO violin Mihaela Ionescu, who recalled that the first work that she played with the CSO was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, under then music director Georg Solti. She recalled Solti’s “dedication to the metronome. … we were always in synch.”