Musical Director Donato Cabrera talks about growing up in Las Vegas and his friendship with one of the most celebrated composers on earth
“Well, of course it’s an impossibility,” says Donato Cabrera, music director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. The task that Cabrera describes as futile is an understandable one: to whittle down the extensive catalog of one of the most celebrated composers of all time, John Williams, to 90 minutes. “It’s sort of like the music of Beethoven,” he says. “You know, ‘Where do you start? Where do you end?’ Everything that man did is now considered a classic. Well, the same can be said about John Williams.”
Cabrera is completely correct. John Williams has composed music for over 75 films, won 25 Grammys, and has five Oscars to his credit. Included in his seven-decade career is his latest Academy Award nomination for his work on Steven Spielberg’s “The Fablemans.” Williams is known for his work on “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and this is only a small fraction of his popular work.
So, how does one take the musical collection of a legend with a catalog as long as The Great Wall and condense it? While the job at hand may prove that resistance is futile, it is precisely what Cabrera must do this weekend as he conducts “The Music of John Williams.”
Striking Back And Raiding An Empire
“There’s always something to be left out, there’s always something we put in, and there’s always something to be done again,” Cabrera tells Off the Strip. Luckily for this composer, this isn’t the first time he’s had to crack the whip and take a gigantic bite out of Williams’ collection. In fact, this is the third time that the Las Vegas Philharmonic has done such a show—consider it Volume III, if you will.
With arguably the most recognizable scores on the planet, you’d have a better chance of discovering an extra-terrestrial in your closet than hearing all his hits. Though you are sure to hear at least one favorite, “We will of course be playing some music from ‘Star Wars’ because it’s almost impossible not to,” says Cabrera.
As for Cabrera’s favorite? “I am looking forward to doing his suite from ‘Jaws.’ Aside from the famous team that created paranoia and phobias of the water, [the] music throughout the entire movie is actually rather unique.”
Donato Cabrera Phone Home
Donato Cabrera is no stranger to Las Vegas. In fact, he’s far from it. In the 2023-2024 season, Cabrera will be celebrating his tenth year with the Las Vegas Philharmonic, But his history goes back even further. “My mother’s side of the family has been in Las Vegas since 1959,” he says. Apart from his actual birth, Cabrera grew up in Vegas, spending his youth there until he and his family moved to Reno when he was ten. As a matter of fact, he still has family here. “It’s my family when I’m in Las Vegas; I’m with my aunt and uncle here. So it’s a very, very close connection.”
The connection is so strong that this celebrated conductor has a favorite neighborhood in our city—Herbs and Rye. “I would go for my mother’s birthday,” he recalls the local favorite all the way back to the 1970s and other occasions since. “When I walk into Herbs and Rye, I have a flashback moment. So it’s very personal to me.”
His connection extends from the personal to the professional. He tells us of arriving first as a guest conductor and initially having audiences that were less than engaged, though they did stay until the last note. But then, “At that moment, I looked out to the audience, and I saw people rushing to the exit signs with their keys. Ready to go, leaving to be the first one out of the parking garage.”
He continues, “I knew that had to change. In order for this audience to have a real connection.” In his first few years as musical director, Cabrera took to addressing the audience and telling them that an encore was prepared and ready to go. Whether or not the audience heard the encore was entirely up to them and how much they applauded throughout the concert. Now that a true connection has been made, he has cut the chat.
Close Encounters Of The Hollywood Kind
Another personal and professional connection Cabrera made was with John Williams himself. Several times over the years, the two have crossed paths. The first time they met is a story straight out of Hollywood, literally.
“He came to conduct a benefit concert for the San Francisco Symphony. He donated his fee, and I think he even refused to allow the symphony to pay for his flight from LA to San Francisco. He’s an incredibly generous man,” Cabrera says.
He recalls Williams saying that he was going to have some of his “buddies” come and help him. “Unbeknownst to all of us, it was George Lucas who came down from Skywalker Ranch and helped narrate the first half of the concert. As if that wasn’t one of the top bucket list moments, the world-renowned music icon added a second narrator to the concert that night—Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg.
Over the years, Cabrera and Williams have developed a friendship. One that Cabrera speaks of with great respect. “We spent a lot of time together talking about the way he would write for film,” he says, then quickly adds the fact that Williams’ style isn’t really done anymore. Williams still chooses the laborious process of writing out music by hand. “He still does [it] because he’s of that generation, and the idea of using a computer to write music is completely foreign to him,” he says with admiration.
Last week, they again crossed paths in San Francisco, where Cabrera serves as the Resident Director for the San Francisco Symphony. Williams performed an arrangement from the upcoming “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” and again the two caught up.
“I told him that we were performing his music again in Las Vegas,” says Cabrera. “And he’s so gracious, so excited, so thankful. You know he’s now 91, and for him to be as excited as he was—for conducting the San Francisco Symphony, and we in Las Vegas will be performing his music this weekend, well.” Cabrera says it with reverence. “It just speaks to the graciousness and just the sheer fact that he’s just such a wonderful man.”
Speaking of this weekend, Cabrera tells us that there is one popular piece of music by John Williams that he has never conducted. Well, that was until now. Audiences can expect the debut of a longtime John Williams favorite. What that piece will be is a secret best left for audiences this weekend, but we will say it is just super.
What: The Music of John Williams Performed by the Las Vegas Philharmonic with Musical Director Donato Cabrera
When: Friday and Saturday, March 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Smith Center for Performing Arts, 361 Symphony Park Avenue, Las Vegas
Note: Audiences are encouraged to dress up in their favorite Star Wars, Jedi or Hogwarts characters.