Donato Cabrera has been leading the California Symphony for a relatively short time -- he was appointed the orchestra's music director last June, and began his tenure in that capacity last September -- but he's forged a remarkably cohesive ensemble since then. The results were on dynamic display throughout the orchestra's season-ending concert Sunday afternoon at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts.
Leading a program that featured Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," Rachmaninov's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," and the world premiere of D.J. Sparr's "Dreams of the Old Believers," Cabrera made one of his most vibrant appearances to date.
The California-born Cabrera, who also serves as the San Francisco Symphony's resident conductor, as well as music director of the Green Bay Symphony, New Hampshire Music Festival, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and, with last month's appointment, the Las Vegas Philharmonic, has made strong impressions since his first appearance as guest conductor in Walnut Creek.
Since taking over the California Symphony's reins, succeeding founding music director Barry Jekowsky, Cabrera has built on those first impressions, and his fluid, energetic podium style continues to yield forceful results.
The rewards were especially evident in Sunday's splendid performance of "Scheherazade." Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite, based on the "1,001 Nights," is a popular, oft-performed warhorse. But Cabrera made it exciting -- rich in color and texture, with a keen balance of heightened drama and dreamy, diaphanous mystery.
From the first movement's ominous, broad-beamed opening theme, he led a fleet, flowing performance, bringing the score's melodic themes and imagery into sharp relief. Concertmaster Leor Maltinski played the title character's beguiling violin theme with particular flair.
The inner movements came across sounding brisk and spontaneous. From the score's earthshaking episodes to its tender interludes, Cabrera brought the orchestra together with strength and cohesion. The violins made crisp, unified statements throughout. Each section excelled: cellist Dawn Foster-Dodson, flutist Michelle Caimotto, oboist James Moore, clarinetist Jerome Simas and bassoonist Douglas Brown made especially fine contributions. Cabrera whipped up quite a storm in the score's final pages, with the brass section asserting itself handsomely.
With Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev as soloist, Rachmaninov's "Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini" also brought an exuberantly outsized performance. Cabrera deftly negotiated the work's mercurial turns, and Yakushev, the winner of the 2005 World Piano Competition, played with a winning blend of rapturous lyricism and dramatic flair. He returned for a single encore, a lovely traversal of Chopin's haunting Nocturne in C-sharp minor.
Under Cabrera, the Symphony maintains its long tradition of fostering up-and-coming composers. Sparr, in his third year as Young American Composer-in-Residence with the orchestra, was on hand Sunday for the maiden voyage of "Dreams of the Old Believers."
Sparr took his inspiration from Karp Lykov, a Russian national who, seeking religious freedom, led his family into the Siberian wilderness in 1936 and lived there, isolated from the rest of the world, until the late 1970s. Cut off from civilization, they were unaware of World War II, space exploration, or television, and spent much of their time recounting dreams.
Cast in a single movement, the 10-minute score melds bright sonorities and shimmering Old World themes. Two offstage ensembles -- one comprised of flute, violin and viola; the other oboe, violin and cello -- occasionally break through the larger soundscape to give voice to those dreams; chimes and mallet instruments supply a driving pulse.
Cabrera led a relentlessly enveloping performance, one that finally faded away like a memory. "Dreams of the Old Believers" was Sparr's final work for this orchestra, and also his finest. According to a Symphony rep, the Young American Composer-in-Residence for the 2014-15 season will be named in the coming weeks.