Donato Cabrera
Donato Cabrera with the California Symphony | Credit: Kristen Loken

Conductor Donato Cabrera naturally embraces both his musicians and his audiences as if they’re part of a multigenerational extended family that he wants to both serve and challenge.

Born in Pasadena in 1973, raised in Las Vegas and Reno, and educated at Indiana University and the Manhattan School of Music, Cabrera served as resident conductor and Youth Orchestra music director for the San Francisco Symphony from 2009 to 2016. He led the SF Symphony Chorus in the world premiere of Mass Transmission by Mason Bates (a former composer-in-residence with Cabrera’s current Bay Area ensemble, the California Symphony) and later conducted the same piece at Carnegie Hall. Under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, Cabrera also conducted education and family concerts and helped to create a program inviting amateur musicians of all ages to get coaching and onstage performance time at Davies Symphony Hall.

In 2013, Cabrera was appointed to lead the California Symphony, based in Walnut Creek, and a year later he became music director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. He expanded community and youth outreach for both of his new orchestras, as well as created innovative online programs during the pandemic shutdown, including MusicWise, which aired conversations about art and culture over Facebook and YouTube.

Donato Cabrera
Donato Cabrera | Credit: Lindsay Hale

Cabrera has guest conducted throughout the U.S., as well as in Chile and Mexico, and has established himself as a champion of new and international repertoire. He spoke with SFCV from Vienna, a week before returning to rehearsals for the California Symphony’s season-opening program Sept. 10–11, dubbed “Intersections.”

What brought you to Europe?

I’ve had some recording projects. And then the California Symphony river cruise, which we do for donors every other year, just ended.

Does Europe figure in your expanded career plans?

It’s something I’ve been excited to expand, but as I’m sure you’re aware, the American and European markets are really unto themselves, except with top international artists, like the Capuçon brothers. Regional orchestras here [in Europe] are just as diverse as in the U.S., but we just don’t really know about them. So I’m letting things unfold naturally.

What about the recording?

It’s with the London Symphony, a new violin concerto written by an Austrian composer, Paul Lorenz. The soloist is a fantastic young Moldovan violinist, Alexandra Tirsu. She heard I was spending time in Vienna, and she was looking for a conductor. So six months later I was in Abbey Roads Studios, recording this concerto.

Do tell me about the tour.

Considering the low water level of most European rivers, it was a good experience. It was from Amsterdam to Zurich. We started with a welcome dinner, and I took them to a concert at the Concertgebouw, where they got to hear an orchestra in one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world. Then we began our cruise down the Rhine, and onboard I gave listening lectures, playing classical music from the regions and from all eras as we traveled. You’re seeing the architecture where these people lived.

This sounds like an extension of the holistic approach you’ve taken to orchestral programming. Does that work for you as it does for your donors?

I always learn something new, whether it’s about the political situation the composers experienced in their times or how disease affected their cities.

Donato Cabrera
Donato Cabrera | Courtesy of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra

Are the tours moneymakers?

No, they hopefully break even. But I’d say they’re a community builder. When someone spends a week on a boat with people they’d [normally] only see once a month sitting in row J and maybe sharing a glass of wine at intermission — this is a different sort of community.

Has working in Walnut Creek been significantly different from San Francisco for you?

I would say it’s the Lesher Center [for the Arts, home base of the California Symphony] that makes the experience, both for the performers and for the audience. It’s much more immediate and close. Even up in the balcony, I recognize faces. As opposed to Davies, which is wonderful but more removed, a vast sea of faces.

What have been the programming differences, in general?

When I was first becoming music director of both orchestras [in Walnut Creek and Las Vegas], I thought, I can just create a mini-San Francisco Symphony with them, a sort of cookie-cutter approach. I quickly learned that’s just not how it works. With the California Symphony, I realized that what Barry Jekowsky [the ensemble’s founder, in 1986] had created was the Young American Composer-in-Residence program, which remains one of the most amazing residencies in the country. I celebrate that and have slightly changed it — made the process completely anonymous, which is how we got our first female composer [Katherine Balch].

Because we now have a long list of previous composers-in-residence, I always have those folks in mind when I program, with a premiere every year. I had three programs [per season] with the [SF Symphony] Youth Orchestra, and I now have five with the California Symphony. But with the Youth Orchestra, I had already started the way I program.

Tell me more about that, please.

I’d say my type of programming was very much influenced by Michael Tilson Thomas, in the sense that there’s typically a narrative behind it. And the way he thinks of juxtapositions and connections — that greatly influenced me. There was this incredible institutional memory and devotion to the art form, and I could really be bold artistically. I wanted to explore American music, and we did that having John Adams as our sort of musical grandfather. We did quite a few of his pieces, as well as Mason Bates’s. And the Youth Orchestra, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish; it’s as if they’re eating it for lunch.

I came across an interview in an online Las Vegas publication where you said guest conducting across the Americas had sparked an interest for you in your Mexican heritage. And I’d noticed that, despite what appears to be a Hispanic surname, that heritage is pretty much missing from your bio material, except that you were honored by the Consulate General of Mexico in San Francisco in 2010.

Donato Cabrera
Donato Cabrera | Credit: Lindsay Hale

It’s a classic American story. My father’s side is connected to Mexico, and my grandmother was the first of eight children to be born in Los Angeles [after her parents immigrated from Mexico]. There was this mid-century thing where the mother tongue was lost in one generation. Everyone wanted to assimilate, and it was a shame.

I had no connection to that history until I started being invited to guest conduct orchestras in Mexico. It culminated in an invitation to conduct the Guanajuato Symphony in February of 2020. This was the city my grandfather came from. I was named after him. My two first cousins and my sister came, and we explored the region. It was similar to the feeling I had on the Rhine cruise, walking the streets of where my grandfather had lived. He’d grown up with the dream of being an opera singer and had moved to Los Angeles to pursue that dream but didn’t do it. There was a sense of a circle being closed. Then for six years, I was conductor of the San Francisco Symphony’s Día de los Muertos concerts, and that’s where I first explored Mexico’s deep musical history, hundreds of years older than in the U.S. [The SF Symphony will celebrate Día de los Muertos this year with a concert on Nov. 5, conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto.]

Did being raised in Nevada have anything to do with your taking the post in Las Vegas?

Absolutely not! I think it was in 2012 that I was backstage at Davies with Yuja Wang. She knew that I was from Nevada and said, “Did you know that there’s a new concert hall, The Smith Center, in Las Vegas, and they have an incredible piano!” I went home, looked up the website for The Smith Center, and emailed my uncle and aunt, who still live in Las Vegas. About a week later I got an email from a horn player who was in Phantom of the Opera there, and he said, “They’re looking for a new conductor, I think you should look into it.” I applied, and when I went there for the first rehearsal, I realized they were committed to making this town into a city.

Donato Cabrera
Donato Cabrera with the Las Vegas Philharmonic | Credit: Jerry Metellus

Part of the decision of my becoming music director was that I could spend time with my extended family at least once a month. [The Las Vegas Philharmonic’s 2022–2023 season starts Sept. 17, with Cabrera conducting a program titled “American Classics.”]

What do you get there that you might not get in Walnut Creek or San Francisco?

Everything is new to them, and if you present the music in an open and honest way, they respond. There are very few places where you can have a clean slate with an audience. I did all nine of the Beethoven symphonies there in one season, and that is not something I could do in San Francisco. There is also incredible talent playing in pit orchestras and bands [who’ve been showcased in some Philharmonic programs].

And you’ve been able to reconnect with the younger generation in Vegas.

Kids are bused in to the Smith Center, mostly third and fourth graders. Over the seven years I was resident conductor with San Francisco, I developed scripts and programs for kids of that age, and I implemented them with the Las Vegas Philharmonic so that the incredible education program San Francisco has had for almost 100 years lives on with other orchestras around the country. We also started a program called Music Van, which goes into the Las Vegas schools.

Let’s look at the “Intersections” program, which will start the California Symphony season on Sept. 10. In part, you’ll be paying tribute to Ukraine.

We’re juxtaposing what has become Ukraine’s second national anthem [Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody] with a piece that is an homage by a Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, to a Ukrainian identity he was associated with.

I’ve never conducted his [Tchaikovsky’s] Symphony No. 2 before, so now I’m able to explore repertoire I’ve been keeping in my back pocket. Tchaikovsky wasn’t responsible for the naming of that symphony [as “The Little Russian”], and he grew up going to what is now Ukraine and spending his summer holidays greatly influenced by Ukrainian folk music, so much so that he wrote a whole symphony about it.

You’re bringing back Israeli cellist Inbal Segev.

She’d been soloist for the premiere of Tangle Eye by Dan Visconti, when he was our composer-in-residence in 2017. I’d known the composer Anna Clyne when she was in residence with the Chicago Symphony, and I heard Inbal premiering Anna’s Dance at Cabrillo [Festival of Contemporary Music] in 2019. I wanted a companion piece for Dance on this program, and I came up with Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta to tell another story about dance.

What’s your perspective on the next stages of your career? Are you comfortable with one foot in Vegas and one in Walnut Creek?

Actually, I’ve always lived in San Francisco. I’m in Glen Park. But I do want to spend more time in Europe. I’m part of the Bay Area family of conductors and musicians, and the California Symphony has become what I mean to represent in music. We’re doing five doubles a year, and it would be lovely if we could do more and to start a conducting fellowship similar to the conductor-in-residence program. And for the Las Vegas Philharmonic, I want to continue the sense of discovery and engagement.