At family gatherings when he was a boy, Donato Cabrera liked to sit on his grandmother's lap as she played the piano in her East Los Angeles living room.
"At Christmas, she would play a bunch of songs," he says, "and everyone was gathered around, and it seemed like the love of the family, the joy of the family, was in the room as she played. And I wanted that -- the ability to make that kind of joy."
Cabrera, 40, is the new conductor and music director with the California Symphony in Walnut Creek, which opens its 2013-14 season Sunday at the Lesher Center for the Arts. With his career on the ascent (he remains an assistant conductor with the San Francisco Symphony), that touchstone joy, it seems, has never gone away. "It's so overpowering for me that I want to share this with as many people as is possible, because it has transformed my life," he says.
Don't get the wrong idea. This musical evangelist -- he also leads the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra -- is a down-to-earth guy, a big fan of Bon Iver, Nine Inch Nails and really good cappuccinos.
When he talks about formative experiences, his six years managing a CD store in Reno, starting at age 19, comes to the fore. When the subject turns to his biggest mentors, the name Felton Hickman comes up -- his band director at Edward C. Reed High School in nearby Sparks, and "one of the best conductors I know."
In a two-hour chat at his San Francisco Symphony Orchestra office, Cabrera -- Mexican on his father's side, English-German on his mother's -- lays out his musical timeline straight through to this weekend's Walnut Creek concert of works by John Adams, Mozart and Dvorak.
Born in Pasadena and raised in Las Vegas and Reno, Cabrera took up piano at 6 and French horn at 10. Equally taken with basketball and Brahms, he eventually enrolled as a music education major at the University of Nevada, Reno, where a professor, John Lenz, allowed him to conduct a movement of Smetana's "The Moldau" at a concert -- simply because Cabrera had a hunch that he'd be good at it.
"There are moments in life when you are given these opportunities," Cabrera says, "and what happens when you walk through that door?"
Cabrera went on to eight years of training as a conductor, graduating from the Manhattan School of Music in 2002. Another opportunity led to the San Francisco Opera, where he helped prepare orchestra and singers for the premiere of Adams' "Doctor Atomic" in 2005. In 2007, he began subbing as conductor for the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra -- starting to become another Felton Hickman, by passing on passion and discipline to a new generation.
Cabrera and wife Niloufar Talebi, a poet and librettist, live in a Twin Peaks house with impressive views. The Bay Area is their home, so what a relief that the California Symphony selected Cabrera as its music director -- out of a field of seven finalists who conducted the orchestra last season. No wonder; his performances have range and authority -- crisp and driving, then flexible and sensuous.
Every one of his programs this season will include a work by a living composer. Co-founder of New York's American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Cabrera finds himself "in sync" with the East Bay orchestra's historical mission of nurturing young soloists and composers, as established by its founder, Barry Jekowsky. He aims to expand programming for families and hopes to grow the orchestra's ethnic outreach. He also has redesigned its website (www.californiasymphony.org) -- and streamlined its Twitter handle (@CAsymphony).
"I'm trying not to be overbearing but to be as involved as I can," Cabrera explains, "because every aspect of an orchestra is a reflection of the music director's artistic vision. And there's not a better role model for that than Michael Tilson Thomas." Did we mention that Cabrera is MTT's emergency backup at the San Francisco Symphony, which means knowing every single score on every one of Tilson Thomas' programs?
"Donato is a wonderful musician, conductor and colleague," Tilson Thomas says. "Whether it is on the podium working with the San Francisco Symphony or inspiring the young musicians of our Youth Orchestra, his thoughtful and artistically generous work is a meaningful part of the music that is made in Davies Symphony Hall."
And emergencies do happen. "Last spring, Donato took over the second half of a San Francisco Symphony concert when MTT's right arm began to bother him," says Adams, who lives in Berkeley and was in the audience that night. "It was one of those scary/exciting moments that assistant conductors wait for with what has to be a certain existential dread -- you suddenly have to walk out in front of 2,000 people and lead the orchestra in a piece you've most likely never rehearsed with them. In this case, it was Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. It was an excellent performance, confident and unique ... an exciting reading."
You know -- spreading the joy.
Donato Cabrera, music director and conductor
Opening program, 2013-14 season: Works by Adams, Mozart, Dvorak
When: 4 p.m. Sept. 29
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Tickets: $15-$65; 925-943-7469, www.californiasymphony.org
Claim to fame: New music director and conductor for the California Symphony Orchestra
Quote: "I'm trying not to be overbearing but to be as involved as I can. ... And there's not a better role model for that than Michael Tilson Thomas."