Donato Cabrera clearly remembers the first time he heard the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. It was the early 1990s, the conductor was Alasdair Neale, and the music was Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.
“I was blown away,” Cabrera says. “I remember sitting there thinking, ‘This is unbelievably good’ — and hoping I’d be lucky enough to conduct an orchestra of that caliber.”
In 2009, Cabrera got his wish. The California-born, Nevada-raised conductor moved to San Francisco. After working as a staff conductor for the San Francisco Opera, he joined the San Francisco Symphony as resident conductor and music director of the Youth Orchestra.
Now midway through his fifth season, Cabrera will conduct the Youth Orchestra on Sunday in a program that includes Debussy’s “La Mer,” Delibes’ “Sylvia” suite, Toru Takemitsu’s “A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden” and John Adams’ “Common Tones in Simple Time.”
Each piece has a strong San Francisco connection — “La Mer” is a signature piece for the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Takemitsu’s piece was a symphony commission.
The San Francisco Ballet’s Martin West recently led the players through the “Sylvia” score. And Adams, who lives in Berkeley, will be attending rehearsals.
“Common Tones in Simple Time” is vintage Adams — and rarely performed, Cabrera says.
“It’s composed around the same time as John’s ‘Shaker Loops,’” he notes. “There are definitely some similarities, but this piece is for full orchestra. The Youth Orchestra players are very excited about it — there are still quite a few members who remember when we took ‘Shaker Loops’ on tour. They had a familiarity with John’s music, and I knew we could be quite successful with it.”
Cabrera, who was appointed music director of the Walnut Creek-based California Symphony last year, says he’s constantly amazed by the Youth Orchestra’s abilities.
In 2012, he led the ensemble on its eighth European tour. In Berlin, they performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 to critical acclaim. A live recording of the performance is available on the symphony’s SFS Media label.
It’s especially rewarding to see the players go on to professional careers. Trumpeter Mark Grisez, for instance, joined the Youth Orchestra last year and will be soloist when Cabrera conducts the ensemble in Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in May.
“He’s a student of [San Francisco Symphony principal trumpet] Mark Inouye, and he’s just a superstar,” Cabrera says. “In fact, he’s my new principal trumpet at the California Symphony.”
IF YOU GO
S.F. Symphony Youth Orchestra
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Tickets: $12 to $50