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N.H. Music Festival director Cabrera plans ambitious slate of summer concerts

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Donata Cabrera had never set foot in New Hampshire before he came here last summer to audition for the position of director of the New Hampshire Music Festival. But as someone who has never shied away from an opportunity, it didn’t take long to know this was where he wanted to spend his summers. “I couldn’t believe how absolutely stunningly beautiful it was up here,” said Cabrera, who serves as resident director of the San Francisco Symphony during the year.

But it wasn’t just the mountains and lakes that lured Cabrera here. He felt an almost instant connection with the Music Festival members.

“There’s just a wonderful variety of people here from all over the country,” said Cabrera, who has big plans for the Festival’s 2013 summer season, including its first concert in Concord this August. “One of the great things about the festival is the camaraderie. Some of the orchestra members have been here 30 years or longer. They’ve raised their children here.”

That multi-generational feel especially appeals to Cabrera, who first fell in love with music – and with the particular pleasure of performing – at family gatherings that seemed to

orbit around his grandmother. “She was always the life of the party and always had a smile on her face,” he said. “The reason I’m a musician is because of her.”

Cabrera’s parents got him a piano when he was 8 or 9, and his love for music blossomed when he began playing the French horn in the high school band under the direction of a charismatic band director.

“To this day, I think he’s one of the greatest band directors I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Cabrera went on to study music performance at the University of Nevada, Reno. His passion for conducting took hold when he asked his horn teacher if he could try directing the college orchestra. “That opportunity was exactly what I needed. It was a natural fit for me,” said Cabrera, who also learned in that moment to seize every opportunity that came his way.

After school, Cabrera moved to Manhattan and managed to find his first conducting job within 48 hours. When that gig ended and he had to take a job at the Metropolitan Opera gift shop, it was just a matter of months before another opportunity found him. A former classmate came to the shop and mentioned that the orchestra she was working with, the Music Academy of the West, was looking for a director. Cabrera sent along his materials and clinched the job. A connection there led to his position with the San Francisco Symphony.

“It’s always been about making connections,” said Cabrera, who was in Concord last week making a few new connections.

One thing Cabrera hopes to do as director is to help the group live up to its name: The New Hampshire Music Festival. In the past the group has performed mainly in the Lakes Region: With this year’s concerts at the Capitol Center for the Arts, on Aug. 9 and 16, he hopes to give them wider exposure.

The group certainly has the talent and reputation to build a bigger name for itself, Cabrera said.

Board members and festival musicians are equally excited about Cabrera’s leadership.

“It’s really a perfect match,” said Stephen Tessler, a former board member who was on the selection committee for the new director. Cabrera was among several conductors who were invited to “try out” as conductors last summer, and Tessler remembers the impression he made. “He opened up with this modern piece, which made some of us nervous, but the audience just went crazy,” Tessler said. “Everybody’s jaws just dropped.”

A relatively young conductor, Cabrera had no trouble gaining the respect of the veteran members of the festival, Tessler said. At the same time, he seemed to bring a new pizzazz that appealed to young audience members.

That multi-generational appeal is something Cabrera hopes to foster as director. This year the festival will bring back the Family Concert Series, two afternoon performances designed to be family friendly and affordable. The Wonderful World of Symphony: How it Works, will take place on July 13 at the Silver Center for the Arts in Plymouth. The Four Elements of Music: Composer, Conductor, Musician and You! takes place on Aug. 3 at the Silver Center for the Arts.

In addition to widening its geographic and demographic audience, Cabrera hopes to broaden the festival’s repertoire. While it will still be heavy on classical music and remain true to traditional favorites such as its chamber music series, he hopes to lead the group in new musical directions in the years to come as well.

“I can just imagine the festival celebrating all kinds of music,” Cabrera said.

For information on this year’s concert season, which begins next month and also includes concerts in Gilford and Wolfeboro, visit nhmf.org.

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