I think I've been waiting more than one lifetime to conduct this piece.
Music Director Donato Cabrera conducts Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 at the California Symphony’s season finale—a piece he says he’s been «waiting more than one lifetime» to conduct. We talked with Maestro about Bruckner, what he finds so appealing about the 7th Symphony, and his perspective on the piece as a former horn player.
Your first instrument was the piano but your main instrument through college was French horn. What was it about the horn that appealed to you?
When I started 7th grade, I chose to sign up for band because I could read music and I thought I could put this skill to good use. As I’m sure is still the case now, my band director played a recording of all of the instruments. The French Horn, with it’s noble, powerful, and dark sound immediately appealed to me. Even with piano pieces before that, I was attracted to piano music that had these particular qualities.
How did you transition from being a member of the orchestra to standing up and conducting in front of it?
This is a long story and took many years to materialize, but it began with being inspired by my high school band director and with my love of music education. By the time I was a high school senior, I knew that I was going to become a music teacher. Little did I know then that this would morph into becoming a symphony conductor, whose primary function, in my opinion, is educational.
Thinking ahead to the season finale, I’ve heard that horn players have a complicated relationship with Brucker. How do you think your experience of playing the French horn influenced your views of Bruckner?
I began to seriously listen to classical music at about the same time I joined the middle school band (age 12). So, I was naturally attracted to composer’s who featured this instrument – Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schumann, etc. I will never forget the first time that I heard the beginnings of both Bruckner’s 4th and 7th Symphonies, which prominently feature this instrument from the outset.
Bruckner 7 features a quartet of Wagner tubas, an instrument that’s named after a tuba but which produces a sound that’s a cross between a French horn and a trombone. Did you ever play one as a student?
I tried one once, but never had the opportunity to play one in a concert.
The instruments are so rare we had to borrow them from another symphony for this performance. Does that mean we also have to hire in Wagner tuba specialists to come and play them?
French horn players are the only ones who play the Wagner Tuba, not trumpet, trombone, or tuba players. However, most French hornists never have the chance to play them unless they play in a major symphony or opera that performs Bruckner symphonies or Wagner operas. The California Symphony is, of course, very lucky to have both a major symphony and opera house in its midst, so there are local horn players that do have quite a bit of experience on these rare instruments.
How do French horn players feel about playing the Wagner tuba? Is it a special treat because the opportunity to play them is so rare, or is it a curse? (I’ve heard intonation can be tricky…)
I think French horn players who have had enough opportunity to play these rare instruments with frequency are the most comfortable with them. So, it’s not a question of liking or disliking, it’s a question of experience.
You’ve described Bruckner’s 7th Symphony as one of your favorite pieces. To anyone unfamiliar with the piece, how would you explain what’s special about it?
For me, it is quite different from all of his other symphonies. It is, particularly the first and second movements, the most lyrical and melodic and, in my opinion, the most accessible of the Bruckner symphonies, precisely because of this lyricism. However, the qualities that make all of the Bruckner symphonies so special: nobility, mystery, mysticism, high drama, are in ample abundance in this 7th Symphony.