The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during the 2011 Dia de los Muertos Concert. (Photo/Stefan Cohen)

Conductor unites thousands in SF for annual Dia de los Muertos concert

Donato Cabrera, born in California and raised in Nevada, became a conductor thanks to his Mexican grandmother.

 “She would be the life of the party playing Mexican waltzes and marches that her father had taught her,” says Cabrera about his grandmother whose father, Luis Castillo, was a musician in Mexico. “I wanted to do what she did, so I insisted on taking piano lessons at 8 or 9 years old.”

Now the resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and the Wattis Foundation music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra since 2009, Cabrera says what he loves most about his job is the idea of bringing people together. This Saturday, he is welcoming approximately 2,600 adults and children for the sixth annual Dia de los Muertos Community Concert in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.

“It is amazing — it’s already sold out — it sells out almost every year,” says Cabrera, whose directed the festive concert for the last four years. “There is such a strong history of European classical music in Latin America — hundreds and hundreds of composers that no one knows about. There’s a 200-year old history there that people gravitate towards and love. We try to celebrate that in the Dia de Los Muertos concert.”

He says the fact that Davies Symphony Hall is one of the larger cultural institutions in the Bay Area, and it is celebrating this holiday, shows the community is embracing Latino culture.

Conductor Donato Cabrera (Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

Conductor Donato Cabrera (Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

“Every year we try to come up with something different,” says the conductor who is also the co-founder of the New York-based American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), which presents new music by living composers alongside the classics.“This year, we wanted to focus on some folk songs.”

The first piece he says is by Arturo Márquez, and is called Danzon No. 2.

“His music is fantastic — it has a lot of Afro-Cuban dance rhythms in a symphonic context,” says Cabrera about the world-renowned composer born in Alamos, Mexico. “He was fascinated by all Latino rhythms.”

He goes on to explain that the first half of the performance will be made up of a piece called “The Composer is Dead,” which was designed for children originally.

“This is only the second time this piece will be performed with Spanish narration,” says Cabrera. “There’s a narrator telling the story while the symphony plays — it’s a murder mystery story about who killed the composer. The narrator plays the role of the inspector and asks the kids, ‘Was it the violins, was it the French horns?’ — It’s a way to introduce the instruments to them.”

Cabrera says the Dia de los Muertos concert is one of his favorite concerts of the year. In addition to the unity and color it brings, it’s also a way to honor his rich culture.

“One of the most memorable experiences we had was when tenor David Lomeli sang some arias and Mexican songs,” he remembers fondly. “The response he got sounded like a rock concert. That was a particularly great moment for me that I’ll never forget. I also try to go out to the lobby to see the artwork — it’s very special.”

In February 2010, Cabrera was recognized as a Luminary by the Friends of Mexico Honorary Committee, a group led by San Francisco’s Consul General of Mexico dedicated to celebrating Mexico’s bicentennial in San Francisco. Cabrera was honored for his contributions to promoting and developing the presence of the Mexican community in the Bay Area.

“My grandmother brought my family together, and that’s what attracts me to all music — it can bring people together of all backgrounds and ethnicities — that’s what live music does so well,” says Cabrera.

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