Donato’s Notes on Iconic Beethoven


Donato Cabrera

By California Symphony Music Director Donato Cabrera.

As we approach the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, I thought we could get a head start by programming his most popular symphony, and perhaps the most recognizable piece of Western Classical Music, his Symphony №5, with one of his lesser known works, The Creatures of Prometheus Overture. I like to bookend concerts with works by the same composer in order to put these works in comparison with each other and also with the works sandwiched in between.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s La Centinela y la Paloma was brought to my attention by our soloist, Rachel Calloway Smith. For me, I am always interested in expanding the vocal repertoire that the California Symphony performs and Frank’s piece, with its inspiration coming from the Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, and the artist Frida Kahlo, seemed an appropriate choice for our community.

While Gustav Mahler is known for his symphonies, and justifiably so, he composed many songs throughout his life. These four songs were chosen not so much for their narrative relationship, but for their musical attributes. I wanted to create a miniature symphony of song, with the first ‘movement’ boldly beginning the proceedings, the second creating a slow, reflective space, the third creating a dance-like scherzo, and the final song ending like a typical late Mahler symphony, full of questions and looking to the horizon.

I encourage everyone to follow the words in the program while the Frank and Mahler are being performed. This is one of the things I enjoy most when attending a vocal concert. I enjoy trying to understand what the composer was trying to capture through the music each and every word, and I think you will, too.

There is not much that hasn’t been written about Beethoven’s Symphony №5. I will say that, for me, this remains one of the most challenging symphonies to perform and interpret. It is a piece that demands that we have it mastered, but also that it be played as if never having heard it before. For me it represents, in music, the struggle of life itself and this is no small order.


This article originally appeared on Donato Cabrera’s Medium blog. Donato Cabrera is the Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic.

ICONIC BEETHOVEN takes place on Saturday, September 14 at 8 PM and Sunday, September 15 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets start at $42 / $20 for students 25 and under with valid Student I.D. and can be purchased online or by calling the Lesher Center Box Office at 925.943.7469.


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