The Music Plays On

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Posted by Donato Cabrera on Thursday, March 14, 2019

Music Director Donato Cabrera conducts Bruckner’s Symphony №7 at the California Symphony’s season finale-a piece he feels he’s been “waiting more than one lifetime” to conduct. We talked with Maestro about Bruckner, what he finds so appealing about the Seventh Symphony, and how his perspective has been shaped by playing the French horn.

1. Your first instrument was the piano but your main instrument through college was French horn. What was it about the horn that appealed to you?

When I started 7th grade, I chose to sign up for band because I could read music and I thought I could put this skill to good use. As I’m sure is still the case now, my band director played a recording of all of the instruments for the students to choose an instrument whose sound they like. The French horn, with its noble, powerful, and dark sound immediately appealed to me. Even with piano pieces before that, I was attracted to piano music that had these particular qualities.

2. How did you transition from being a member of the orchestra to standing up and conducting in front of it?

This is a long story and took many years to materialize, but it began with being inspired by my high school band director and his incredibly inspiring abilities as a music educator. By the time I was a high school senior, I knew that I was going to become a music teacher. Little did I know then that this would morph into becoming a symphony conductor, whose primary function, in my opinion, is educational.

I began to seriously listen to classical music at about the same time I joined the middle school band (age 12). So, I was naturally attracted to composers who featured this instrument — Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schumann, etc. I will never forget the first time that I heard the beginnings of both Bruckner’s 4th and 7th Symphonies, which prominently feature this instrument from the outset.

I tried one once, but never had the opportunity to play one in a concert.

French horn players are the only ones who play the Wagner tuba, not trumpet, trombone, or tuba players. However, most French hornists never have the chance to play them unless they play in a major symphony or opera that performs Bruckner symphonies or Wagner operas. The California Symphony is, of course, very lucky to have both a major symphony and opera house in its midst, so there are local horn players that do have quite a bit of experience on these rare instruments.

I think French horn players who have had enough opportunity to play these rare instruments with frequency are the most comfortable with them. So, it’s not a question of liking or disliking, it’s a question of experience.

7. You’ve described Bruckner’s 7th Symphony as one of your favorite pieces. To anyone unfamiliar with the piece, how would you explain what’s special about it?

For me, it is quite different from all of his other symphonies. It is, particularly the first and second movements, the most lyrical and melodic and, in my opinion, the most accessible of the Bruckner symphonies, precisely because of this lyricism. However, the qualities that make all of the Bruckner symphonies so special: nobility, mystery, mysticism, high drama, are in ample abundance in this 7th Symphony.

Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer is also a former brass player (tuba, Rice University) and fan of Bruckner’s big and dramatic sound:

Donato has wanted to program Bruckner’s Seventh for as long as we’ve worked together. It’s been one of those artistic dreams for him I think. My role on the financial side sometimes is to hit the brakes on projects like that because a Bruckner symphony is big-lots of players, lots of rehearsals, extra instruments not normally used-and all that costs a lot of money. But this year was the year we could make the leap and do it.

I have a memory from early on in both mine and Donato’s tenure here: Last time the California Symphony performed Bruckner, it was during the 2016/17 season, which meant Donato and I were putting together that season about a year and half before that, in the summer of 2015. At that time we had been working together for about a year, and I remember him saying to me a little sheepishly-testing the waters I think-that he wanted to have this orchestra perform a Bruckner symphony in the upcoming year (read: expensive and not the box office draw that a comparable Beethoven symphony would be). The former brass player in me got so excited, “Oh heck yes” I exclaimed. And he just started laughing. “I forgot you were a brass player…you are probably the only orchestra manager who doesn’t run the other way at this request!” That was one of those moments early on where I realized that Donato and I would continue to get along just fine.

Originally published at https://www.californiasymphony.org on April 2, 2019.