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Story by David McKee
A passionate populist, Donato Cabrera brings a teaching spirit —and a fervent musical gusto — to his new role at the philharmonic
Donato Cabrera’s resumé is impressive, to be sure. Where to start? A University of Nevada-Reno music graduate, he also holds an artist’s diploma in conducting from the Manhattan School of Music, and he’s guest conducted for everyone from the Vienna Philharmonic’s International Orchestra Institute Attergau to the Woodstock Mozart Festival in Illinois. And, in addition to his new directorship of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, he’s also currently resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, the California Symphony and the New Hampshire Music Festival. (Cabrera can even do a bit of web design in a pinch, as he did for the California Symphony.) Phew.
What’s not on his resumé might be just as relevant: For instance, a 10-year-old Cabrera commandeering the family TV whenever PBS’s “Great Performances” would feature Leonard Bernstein; in the living room, the young Cabrera would watch, transfixed by the towering figure of American orchestral music. Or, Cabrera in high school, when the teenager was slipping classical music CDs in his player instead of the sugary synth-and-guitar concoctions that were all the rage in the ’80s.
That voracious enthusiasm for music still possesses him. Little wonder that he’s been described as “a passionate, heart-on-sleeve conductor, with eclectic musical tastes” (San Jose Mercury News), one whose interpretations have been praised as “probing and superbly dynamic” (San Francisco Chronicle). (If you want to hear for yourself, a substantial tranche of Cabrera’s repertory is available on SonicCloud.com. You’ll find a sun-dappled, laidback rendition of Copland’s El Salon Mexico, a Sibelius First Symphony of fevered and stormy high romanticism, and a Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, laudable for the lucid weave of its string counterpoint.)
Even during an interview, Cabrera conducts the conversation, his hands in near-perpetual motion — for instance, now as he reminisces about his musical epiphany when he was debuting as a student conductor with the college orchestra at the University of Nevada-Reno, handling Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau.
“I’ll never forget also the very first rehearsal where that happened,” he recalls. “It was a sense of, ‘This is what I was meant to do.’” A music-education major, Cabrera thought conducting would make him a better teacher. In a sense, it did. “Most conductors will tell you, to be a conductor, whether you’re conducting the Vienna Philharmonic or a university orchestra, the idea of it being an educational avocation is of paramount importance.”
The musical mapmaker
And Cabrera aims to educate. Behind the conductor stand, the maestro is animated and impassioned; he’s likened his role as conductor to a musical mapmaker who must creatively reconcile the orchestra’s living sound with the written score in front of him. But as a musical director, Cabrera subscribes to a populist philosophy that stresses accessibility without compromising excellence. He goes out of his way to point out that maestro, despite its connotations of Old World gravity and rectitude, is simply Italian for teacher. He brings what philharmonic CEO Jeri Crawford lauds as “strong programming ideas (for) attracting new audiences.”
Some of these ideas originated with Cabrera’s residency in San Francisco. “For instance, the San Francisco Symphony does every year a Chinese New Year concert, which is always sold out and a wonderful way to connect to the Chinese-American population,” Cabrera says. “I conducted every year the Dia de los Muertos concert. Central and South America have a 600-year-old tradition with classical music, and it’s practically untouched here in North America. There is so much repertoire that is never done. This is just a treasure trove and a great way of reaching out.”
With our significant Asian and Hispanic populations, Las Vegas seems ripe for such a project. How to do it? Outreach, outreach, outreach. “These events have been successful in San Francisco,” Cabrera continues, “because the San Francisco Symphony has paired with cultural organizations that reach out to those communities.” At such concerts, the symphony even displays local art in the lobby from those cultural communities, and whets the audience’s appetite for the show with authentic dance performances before the main event.
He also envisions philharmonic performances being more of a family affair —
Perhaps surprisingly, he’s also a fan of the philharmonic’s integration of giant video projections into its concerts. “It’s a great idea, especially when you have The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which is state-of-the-art for everything. Why not experiment with that during a concert?”
‘There are no set rules’
Or perhaps his embrace of the Las Vegas spirit of prizing spectacle is not so surprising. It may just be in his DNA. Though born in Pasadena, Donato Cabrera, 41, spent his childhood in Las Vegas.
“I remember it being a great place to grow up because all of my friends had a pool in the backyard. So we would basically go from my parents’ backyard to another kid’s backyard, so I thought it was a fun place,” Cabrera remembers. “In retrospect, I lived on the edge of town, meaning one block over was the desert.” Cabrera grew up a block from O.K. Adcock Elementary School near Torrey Pines Drive and Alta Drive, long since subsumed in Vegas’ suburban sprawl. His parents had met at the then-Southern Nevada University, where the elder Cabrera was pursuing a baseball scholarship and courting the future Mrs. Cabrera. Wanting to return to university, Cabrera’s father uprooted the family when Donato was 10 and moved to Reno. By then, the music bug had bitten.
And while the Las Vegas Cabrera knew as a youth has changed dramatically, he feels it’s still in the process of becoming a city, and that makes it tricky for a cultural institution such as a philharmonic to establish its identity and find its audience. But it can also be a liberating proposition.
“The other side of the coin is there are no set rules,” he says. “You don’t have to fit into the traditional, prescribed way of reaching an audience, because the tradition doesn’t exist.”
The same holds true for the orchestra’s music. At the California Symphony, Cabrera tries to include new music on every program. Here, “new” music might be Brahms’ First Symphony, which comes up for its first philharmonic assay this season.
“When you conduct an orchestra like the San Francisco Symphony that has performed the First Symphony by Brahms with practically all the famous conductors living or deceased, you sense this incredible tradition of how to play that piece in a particular way,” he says. “So what’s exciting is that when a group of talented musicians like the Las Vegas Philharmonic plays Brahms’ First Symphony for the first time, there is that culture being developed. That discovery is what I foster in rehearsal and try to cultivate, which you don’t have the luxury of doing when you’re working with an orchestra that performs it on a regular basis.”
Having spent so much time as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Cabrera definitely has some repertory he’d like to debut in Vegas.
“I would love to have the ability to do some of the Mahler symphonies here, which I haven’t done yet,” and of which the Las Vegas Philharmonic has performed only three. “I would love to experiment perhaps doing a Bruckner symphony. Being with the San Francisco Symphony, it has a strong tradition of Mahler as well as Bruckner with the previous music director, Herbert Blomstedt. Rite of Spring. There are quite a few pieces that I would like to have the chance to do here in Las Vegas for the first time.”
Cabrera’s popular music enthusiasm extends to Bon Iver (“I love the sense of intimacy of what he’s singing about”) and Nine Inch Nails (“they’re unbelievable musicians and their music is very complicated and … is very close to what’s happening with contemporary classical music”).
‘We need John Wayne’
Cabrera’s musical openness and creative curiosity are what landed him on the shortlist to be the philharmonic’s music director. Of course, no maestro is an island. He must engage, inspire and direct a group of individual musicians to play seamlessly as one, a role that requires both charisma and discipline. According to board members, those qualities propelled him to the top.
“He’s optimistic, personable, and intelligent, but he’s also tough, practical and focused,” says Las Vegas Philharmonic principal oboist and search-committee member Stephen Caplan. “Culturally, this is still the Wild West. We need someone who is tough, practical and focused. We need John Wayne.”
“It was interesting that in the two-year search we had wonderful candidates. They all had something to add, and they all had a unique look and spin,” says philharmonic Concertmaster DeAnn LeTourneau, another member of the search committee. “But Donato came in and not only had that to offer the orchestra, he also understood the city. We’re one of the probably one hundred things that people, on a nightly basis, have a choice (to see) in Vegas. And that makes us extremely unique. When we had David Itkin, (he) was a traditionally well-schooled, great musician who knew the orchestral business inside out but … he didn’t quite get Las Vegas.”
Hear more: Learn about the legacy of Leonard Bernstein on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”
“Donato Cabrera is very much his own person,” says Caplan, “but I do think he has some of the best qualities of his two predecessors. He possesses the emotion and passion for classical music that Hal Weller exuded, but also the discipline and precision that David Itkin excelled in.”
“And he’s open to other people’s input,” LeTourneau adds. “He’s not just a dictator to say, ‘This is the way I want it.’ Many conductors are like that. ‘This is the way I want it and there’s no arguing’ — and you just show up and do your job. But Donato is not like that. He is open. He wants to hear who are we, what do we want, what repertoire do we like. … The orchestra as a whole is really excited about that.”
Does such beaming mutual admiration suggest that the new musical director will put down some stakes in Las Vegas? Cabrera is open to the prospect of living here part-time, and has hinted about house-shopping in the valley with his wife, writer and artist Niloufar Talebi. LeTourneau doesn’t think that’s so important, largely because the Philharmonic plays only 10 weeks out of the year, but also because it’s good for its music director to be getting exposure and developing repertory with other ensembles. “If Donato moved here, oh, we’d be jumping up and down,” she says. “But there’s not an expectation.”
Besides, presence is nice but, Cabrera points out, the kind of presence that truly matters isn’t physical. It’s an artistic and emotional presence that trumps borders.
“What’s most important for an audience and an orchestra is to have the trust that what is being programmed is what I am passionate about and, through the rehearsal process, gained the passion of the players,” he says. “Whatever is performed, it doesn’t matter if it’s a piece by a living composer or by Beethoven, as long as it’s performed with passion and commitment. Because that’s what’s palpable to an audience.”
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