California Symphony’s New Leader

Following the controversial ousting of its founding music director three years ago, California Symphony hopes to launch a new era with Donato Cabrera.

Growing a regional orchestra is like growing a fruit tree. Plant a sturdy, heirloom seedling in thoroughly tilled soil and allow time for germination. It’s hard work, but patience renders long-lasting nourishment. The Walnut Creek-based California Symphony is preparing to reap the first, sweet rewards of a two-year, doggedly scrupulous search for its “seedling” — straight from the baton of new Music Director Donato Cabrera. Appointed on June 23, Cabrera will mount the podium at the Lesher Center for the Arts to officially kick off his first-of-three contracted seasons on September 29.

It won’t be the first time Cabrera raises his arms in front of the symphony and Bay Area audiences, but it will signal the start of a new era. A little more than three years ago, the symphony’s board abruptly ousted founding Music Director Barry Jekowsky during an unsuccessful contract negotiation, which caused a stir in the local classical scene. The subsequent search for a new music director put the turbulent event in the symphony’s archives. Now, it will be Cabrera’s task to not only lead the troupe, but also to launch it into its next iteration.

Cabrera’s formidable résumé includes stints at orchestras, symphonies, opera companies, and youth groups across the globe. He’s perhaps most recognized as the resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. No doubt of interest to the California Symphony are Cabrera’s public profile, his reputation for stringent standards, and his engaging interactions with young musicians and diverse audiences. He’s been honored for his contributions to the Bay Area’s Mexican-American community and helped the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra win the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming of American Music on Foreign Tours.

For the position of music director at the California Symphony, Cabrera competed with more than one hundred applicants. During his March audition, he conducted works by Beethoven, John Adams, and Prokofiev, energizing the orchestra and winning a unanimous vote from the search committee.

Instead of employing a costly outside service to conduct the search, the symphony used an internal search committee, led by president Thomas Overhoff, member Chuck Scanlan, and chair Richard Jarrett. Overhoff stepped into his board leadership role on the very evening Jekowsky was released. With the orchestra reduced to just four performances by a tight economy and related factors, he said completing the season with guest conductors was practical. “The benefit [to spending two years] with guest conductors was that it was a thorough search,” said Overhoff. “It wasn’t plucking a name out of the air. The drawback is that there is no leader, no personality for the audience to relate to.”

During the audition process audience members, musicians, and committee members were invited to register their feedback through an online survey. “We didn’t want to just hop into it; we got everybody’s opinions,” said Jarrett.

Ultimately, Cabrera was chosen not only for his musical skills but also for his managerial and leadership qualities. “[Cabrera] was organized: He had ideas, plans, programs,” said Scanlan. “He was the most focused on the future.”

That future includes a dedication to the symphony’s core principles: presenting the work of one American composer each season, balancing new music with traditional masters, and building the next generation of musicians through the Young American Composer in Residence, Music-in-the-Schools, and Sound Minds youth programs.

All three men were also impressed by Cabrera’s rapport with the audience and his ability to “pull excellence” from the musicians. Overhoff said there’s an intangible element to a “good fit.” The final factor was a visceral response. “This guy’s phenomenal,” Jarrett said he remembers thinking.

But what’s the appeal for the very-busy Cabrera? “They were able to understand that I love to collaborate,” he said by phone from his annual summer gig at the New Hampshire Music Festival. “My goal is to establish a sense of consistency and like-mindedness for the sound we will strive to achieve.” He added that the lack of leadership at California Symphony for the past two years created a vacuum, and principal positions weren’t filled. “We’re having five key positions filled, which will alter the dynamics,” Cabrera said.

In terms of his long-range plans, Cabrera said he’s thrilled at the possibilities. “California Symphony, although it’s regional, has a great history with the Young American Composer Fellowship,” he said. “The audience is used to discovering new music right there with the composers and musicians. Usually, you have to sandwich new music with classics and hope it passes their radar. That’s not the case with Cal Symphony.”

Cabrera also has unusual insight into the relationship between musicians and their audiences. Long before he was a conductor, he was part-owner of a store that sold classical and jazz CDs, which gave him the opportunity to meet obsessed music fans on a daily basis. “Audiences are in awe, so it’s important they know musicians are human,” he said. And world-renowned conductors are human, too — a fact he plans to make clear through pre-concert chats and speaking engagements at schools.

In the end, the vision Jekowsky carried during his tenure may find new life at the hands of Cabrera. Cabrera, after all, seeks the same things Jekowsky outlined in his parting press release: “an orchestra that [will] celebrate American music, nurture the next generation of American composers, showcase extraordinarily-gifted young musicians, and help redefine the classical experience to appeal to a broader audience.”


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