The Allegro Life of a Modern Conductor

Tuesday, October 11, 2016.

In case you weren’t aware, Donato Cabrera doesn’t spend all his time at the podium in front of the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

Outside of the group’s roughly 10 concerts a year, the music director is pretty busy.

Like many top-level conductors today, Cabrera serves as resident director of multiple orchestras, including the California Symphony and, for the past seven years, the San Francisco Symphony. He also guest conducts ensembles around the world, which recently included a month-long stint in Chile.

“It changes from month to month and from season to season,” he says of his schedule. “It’s sort of like being a traveling salesman. Sometimes I feel like I’m living out of a suitcase and haven’t slept in my bed for weeks.”

There is no doubt, at least, that the life of a modern conductor is not dull.

Getting to the Podium

There is a common path to becoming a conductor today, Cabrera says.

Many start by pursuing degrees in conducting – a master’s or doctorate level is expected – and then apprentice themselves with a more established conductor.

In Cabrera’s case, he took advantage of attending the Manhattan School of Music, which allowed him to rub elbows with musical titans and absorb their wisdom.

“Every day, I could sneak into rehearsals at Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera,” he says. “Depending on how brave I was, I could go up to famous conductors, introduce myself, and tell them what I was studying and my goals.”

Conducting Worldwide

Conducting on an international level can happen quickly for focused conductors, Cabrera says.

“You meet many musicians and artists, and word spreads through the typical channels that ‘hey, why don’t we invite this guy to be a guest conductor?’” he says.

It’s a common occurrence. Ensembles’ music directors aren’t available for every concert, and groups benefit from experiencing different conducting styles.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been asked to guest conduct and work with a variety of ensembles throughout the world - and even more important, be asked back, which isn’t always the case,” Cabrera says.

That’s putting it lightly.

Traveling often, he has served as guest or assistant conductor for nearly 40 different orchestras, operas, ballets and festivals around the world, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Ballet and the Spoleto Festival in Italy.

“It’s not a routine by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “There can be months I’m traveling and performing every week, or weeks on end in which I’m not conducting at all as I study music for an upcoming set of concerts.”

Endless Preparation

Many aren’t aware of just how much preparation conductors face.

With performances eternally on the horizon, Cabrera is constantly immersed in choosing repertoire and studying and preparing pieces.

He can spend an entire month studying a symphony to determine how he wants it performed, he says.

“Ninety-eight percent of my job is off the podium,” he says. “It’s countless hours for just one piece.”

It’s all worth it, he says, to give an unforgettable performance.

“(My goal is) to create a concert that’s sublime,” he says. “Something beyond description that’s impossible to recreate by listening to the stereo at home. Our audience, as well as the musicians on stage, live for those magical moments.”

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