Joining the Audience
Las Vegas Philharmonic's Donato Cabrera on breaking down barriers, the concert after 1 October, and what makes Reynolds Hall special
Donato Cabrera will conduct seven of the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s nine concerts at The Smith Center this season — his 10th and last as conductor and music director. For the past decade, Cabrera, 53, has also served as the music director for the California Symphony in the Bay Area, where he plans to continue in an expanded role. That includes more guest-conducting engagements in Europe and North and South America when his time at the helm of the Philharmonic ends next spring. Cabrera, whose family lived in Las Vegas before moving to Reno when he was 10, talked to Desert Companion before he took the baton for the Philharmonic’s 25th season. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Ten years is a nice round number. Why leave now?
It was time for everyone concerned for a new voice. (For) all orchestras — it’s always good to have a new voice ... Let’s refresh this. I’ll still be here, my family’s here. Now, I get to be a cheering audience member and supporter of the Philharmonic and see what happens next.
What are you most proud of during your time here?
The relationship that I’ve been able to foster with the audience. I don’t come from a professional musical family; I had a love of this art form that developed out of great music teachers in public school and my own fascination with music. A lot of people that live in a place like Las Vegas may have had this love for music, but feel that maybe The Smith Center, or something called the Philharmonic, doesn’t belong to them — that they don’t deserve to have that experience.
Through the programming and how I interact with the audience onstage and (off), I feel most proud that I’ve been able to break down those walls of apprehension, of misunderstanding, of maybe elitism, or ‘I don’t make enough money to come to The Smith Center.’ Because they do exist. Those walls aren’t fake. Classical music and orchestras have been their own worst enemy at promulgating those ideas for years. Getting rid of those walls has been a big focus for me.
Is there a concert that was particularly satisfying to schedule this season?
“A Very Vegas Christmas” (Dec. 2), because it is what I’ve wanted to do since coming here, which is to celebrate the musical culture that has always been part of Las Vegas ... It’s the third iteration of the collaboration I’ve had with Keith Thompson and the Composers Showcase and the Las Vegas Philharmonic. That concert is something that can only happen here.
What makes it unique?
Keith basically did what I wanted to do (in the Composers Showcase), which was to bring to Las Vegas’ attention all the local artists and what was being written here by, say, the sax player of Jersey Boys, or the guitar player for Lady Gaga, or all of these backup musicians. They’re incredibly talented. But other than knowing they’re somewhere onstage or backstage providing the music for these great shows, you would never know that they’re also incredible full acts on their own.
They’ll sing one or two famous Christmas songs, and then they’ll sing one of their own holiday songs they composed themselves. It can only happen here because these artists only live in Vegas.
What was the most memorable performance in your 10 years at the Philharmonic?
After 1 October, I suggested changing the (next) concert program to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which is all about overcoming struggle. I also suggested (free tickets) for first responders and anyone who was at the event and their families to help heal. Five hundred people showed up, and it was a very meaningful concert. We also started the concert with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a piece used for reflection since the assassination of JFK.
Any regrets about your tenure?
It’s not regret. You’re always planning; you’re always thinking of things to create for the community as a music director. My role is to create collaborations, concert ideas, ways for the communities or the city of Las Vegas to connect with the arts, particularly the Philharmonic. This is indicative of a lot of Western cities: we collectively do a very poor job of truly connecting with the Hispanic community, the Asian communities, the Black communities in a way that gives them agency to express what they want to express through whatever art form, through whatever event that is happening in these cities.
What’s next in the local culture and arts landscape?
Las Vegas, even in Nevada, is a very young town, especially when it comes to culture and arts. Now that, to me, was an opportunity ... I programmed Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, and a piece by a living composer who lives here part of the year, Michael Torke. All three pieces were a debut; had never been performed in Las Vegas by a professional orchestra. Imagine that! What was super cool about that concert was that the audience … received each piece the same way. They had as much information that was given to them about the Torke piece as the Beethoven, and they accepted those three pieces in the same way. Because we have this new community here, that’s something that can’t happen anywhere else, and it’s so wonderful.
Any advice for the Philharmonic or your successor?
I hope that either a person of color, or a woman, or both, is chosen as the next music director. I think that’s crucial. That person should trust their background and celebrate what their gut tells them to program and to be honest and open and just be themselves in front of the audience.
How can a neophyte know if a performance is going awry and you’re correcting it in real time?
When you see a conductor, 95 percent of the time, no one in the orchestra is really looking at them. That is because there have been usually at least four or five rehearsals where the conductor does the work. They stop, they describe, they cajole. My main goal in a rehearsal is to allow everyone the ability to hear one another onstage.
If I become invisible to the audience, that’s the best. That means they’re just listening and watching the musicians do the work. (I’m) more like a football or a baseball coach reviewing the plays, making sure everyone’s doing their specific job. By the time the game comes, the plan has already been well executed. My job is to encourage the plan to be repeated at the highest level.
What’s your favorite non-Vegas venue in which you’ve conducted?
The most profound experience I’ve had was at the Philharmonie Berlin (in 2012 and 2015). It’s the sound! What makes halls (like this) so famous is the sound that they produce. It can be as unique as an instrument. The other X factor is how those halls, because of a ton of factors — the lighting, the height of the stage, the configuration of the seating — (affect) how you experience the audience. Berlin is like a hall in the round. There’s a lot of people behind the orchestra watching the concert. You’re just surrounded by people, surrounded by their energy.
What’s the X factor at Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center?
It has a lot to do with how you can feel — I hate to use the word — the energy because it sounds so unquantifiable. When I’m standing on the stage, I can hear in a good way people gasp. Or when something ends quietly, they say to the person next to them, “Wasn’t that beautiful?”
They’re close enough sonically that I can hear what’s happening out there. If something is boring them, I can hear a lot of rustling. (Or) I can sense that they’re on the edge of their seat. A lot of halls, you don’t know if the audience likes it or not. They’re too far away. You can’t hear them. They’re just too dark out there. You have no idea. And that’s what makes The Smith Center very special.