Cellist Gabriel Cabezas finds himself at home in many musical genres

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Cellist Gabriel Cabezas calls himself a “true 21st-century musician.” 

To him, that description means a willingness and ability to desire to cross genres, and, indeed, not to be worried about genres at all. “I get really excited when there is a musical chameleon-ness that I get to do,” he said. “It's normal now for people to have a career that is pieced together with a lot different things.” ‘

A Chicago native, Cabezas, 29, has performed with traditional classical ensembles like the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, but he has just as enthusiastically worked as a studio musician, on recordings by such well-known pop/R&B artists as Phoebe Bridgers, John Legend, Taylor Swift and Rufus Wainwright.

Chicago audiences will be able to hear him May 23, when he appears in the season-finale concert of MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Cabezas will perform Alyssa Weinberg’s Caligo, a 2019 work for cello and chamber orchestra that was commissioned by Nicholas Finch and the NouLou Chamber Players in Louisville, Kentucky. He and the composer are friends and have worked together often during the past eight years. “It’s a very textural piece that unfolds over time,” he said. “It’s very atmospheric in a very beautiful and lyrical way. It’s a very broad piece with lots of differences in shading and color, which is something I always appreciate about Alyssa’s music.”

Also on the May 23 program are Overture (2022) by Jessie Montgomery, the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence and curator of the MusicNOW series; Joan Tower’s Rising (2009), a work for flute and string quartet, and guitarist and composer James Moore’s Sleep Is Shattered. 

Nowhere is Cabezas’ versatility more in evidence than in his eight-year participation with yMusic, a group that the New Yorker has described as “six contemporary classical polymaths who playfully overstep the boundaries of musical genres.” The sextet toured with singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby last season and recently released an album with the Staves, an English indie folk trio. It has also collaborated with musical great Paul Simon and choreographer Bill T. Jones and has worked with such leading composers as Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw.

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I joined the group when I was just out of school, so it really helped form some of my development and a lot of my chamber-music skills in perhaps more unusual ways than if you and go play with a string quartet. There are a lot of subtleties with a group that mixes strings, winds and brass. You learn to think and hear a little bit differently.”

At the same time, yMusic has thrust him “right in the deep end” of learning and interpreting dozens of new classical scores and introduced him to the varied non-classical musicians yMusic teams with. “It was interesting to get a crash course in that side of industry as well,” he said. “Playing with yMusic has broadened and balanced out who I am as musician.”

Cabezas also regularly performs with the Dolce Suono Ensemble in Philadelphia, which has premiered more than 55 chamber works since its founding by flutist Mimi Stillman in 2005. He started playing with the group after graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music, which is based in that city. “It’s another interesting situation where you have a melding of different worlds and different kinds of music,” he said. “Mimi believes a lot in commissioning new music and also believes deeply in the traditional repertoire, so we get to mix that together, which also has been very fun.”  

Cabezas spent most of his childhood on the North Shore, graduating from New Trier High School. He was interested in music from a young age, and his parents enrolled him in a Suzuki program, which had a need for cello students, so he started on that instrument. “And I ran with it and, at a certain point, really loved it,” he said.

He took private lessons from Hans Jensen, a professor of cello at Northwestern University, and was a member of the debut class of the Music Institute of Chicago’s now well-established Academy, which competes with such elite programs as the pre-college division of the Juilliard School in New York City and the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

Cabezas won first place twice in the Sphinx Competition: 2006 in the junior division and 2012 in the senior division. The annual contest is organized by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group that promotes the participation of people of color in classical music. He has gone on to work with the group’s community engagement and education programs. In 2016, he won the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, a career grant for up-and-coming artists. 

In June 2021, Cabezas released the album “Lost Coast,” which features music for solo cello that Gabriella Smith wrote with him in mind. He and Smith met at Curtis and were roommates during their last year of school and were later roommates in New York as well. “We have been good friends going on 12 years, so we’ve also talked about music together and thought about music together,” he said.

Inspired by Smith’s reflections on climate change, the album began as notes for a work for cello and orchestra. While assembling her compositions, Smith creates what Cabezas called “vocal mock-ups,” little recordings of her singing sections from the work, which he said can be as affecting as the final versions with the instruments that were meant to perform them. For “Lost Coast,” the two decided to record the piece with Smith singing the wind parts and Cabezas doing all the strings, and they sampled kitchen equipment for the percussion. The album was named one of NPR Music’s “26 Favorite Albums of 2021 (So Far),” and the New York Times declared it a “Classical Album to Hear Right Now.”

Smith has gone on to finish the cello concerto, adding elements that the two created for the recording, sort of art influencing art. The Los Angeles Philharmonic will debut the completed work in May 2023, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting and Cabezas as soloist.

As reviews of “Lost Coast” album have indicated, the premiere of the orchestral version promises to be an event. The Great Northern podcast declares: “ ‘Lost Coast’ sees Cabezas’ virtuosic cello playing layered acoustically with Smith’s arresting vocals to create an addictive and unexpected palette, deployed with Smith’s trademark compositional ingenuity.”

Gabriel Cabezas definitely has arrived.

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