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Acclaimed young cellist Gabriel Cabezas set for CSO, Shostakovich

Cellist Gabriel Cabezas will perform Schostakovich Cello ConcerNo. 1 Tuesday night with CSO. | PHOTO BY GLENN TRIEST

Cellist Gabriel Cabezas will perform the Schostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 Tuesday night with the CSO. | PHOTO BY GLENN TRIEST

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CHIcago symphony orchestra

Webber, ‘The Ruler of Spirits’; Shostakovich, ‘Cello Concerto No. 1’; Berlioz, ‘Symphonie fantastique’

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Info: (312) 294-3000;

Updated: January 10, 2014 6:12AM

‘It’s somewhere between living a dream and ‘what have I gotten myself into?’,” cellist Gabriel Cabezas said with a laugh from his cellphone when reached last Thursday in a waiting area at Philadelphia International Airport.

“You’ve worked for the opportunity to play concerts, travel, make debuts and forge artistic relationships all of your life, and then you wind up having a week like this, which is not something your cello teacher explains to you when you are 9 years old.”

The Chicago area native, who recently turned 21, is dealing with a schedule both logistically complicated and thrilling for a musician of any age. Wednesday night he played in two contemporary chamber works — including one by senior University of Chicago composer Shulamit Ran — in Philadelphia, where he graduated in May from the top-flight Curtis Institute of Music. “We had a couple of rehearsals to learn them,” Cabezas said matter-of-factly.

At the time of our interview he was set to fly across the continent to make his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” for Cello and Orchestra. Then back to Philadelphia, his current home base, and then on to Chicago where he will make his subscription concert debut Tuesday night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto.

“I got the call at the beginning of the year from [CSO artistic planner] Nick Winter asking how would I like to play the Shostakovich with the CSO and conductor Stephane Deneve on a regular subscription series concert,” Cabezas said. “And I said yes right away, of course, even though it meant that I was going to have to learn the piece and work on it all year for this amazing opportunity.”

Cabezas has played with the CSO before. As the winner of the orchestra’s Youth Auditions in 2008, he played in community and neighborhood concerts with the ensemble. And as fate would have it, the Lake George Music Festival in upstate New York wound up programming the Shostakovich work this summer and he was able to give a public performance there.

“You never really know what’s coming,” Cabezas laughed. “You just have to be ready to travel, ready to learn and ready to play.”

An only child, Cabezas took to music early. His father is from Costa Rica and has worked for American Airlines for many years, currently as a flight attendant based in Chicago. His mother, a Missouri native, is a real estate appraiser. His parents now live downtown but Cabezas was raised in Wilmette and attended New Trier High School. While a student at the Music Institute of Chicago on the North Shore, Cabezas was one of the first guests on the WFMT-FM (98.7) weekly “Introductions” program showcasing the area’s top pre-college musicians.

Cabezas has won both the Junior and Senior Divisions of the Sphinx Competition for young musicians of color, formed a regular connection with the National Symphony of Costa Rica, and has both played and toured as a regular member of the Sphinx Virtuosi and the famed Vermont-based Marlboro Music Festival. His teachers and mentors, Carter Brey and Yo-Yo Ma, are now colleagues and friends.

Earlier this year at the Chicago Beethoven Festival, he and fellow Music Institute alum, violist Matthew Lipman — now a senior at the Juilliard School of Music and having his own big professional successes — had their first performance reunion since their high school days in a string quartet. In addition to their bracingly mature playing and presentation, between works the two took their many local fans back to the jocular, almost comic personalities of their younger years, reminders of how much a sense of humor and a ready wit help with the serious demands of launching a musical career.

Cabezas also loves doing community and education work. He’s particularly excited about his association with violin star Midori’s “Partners in Performance” program.

“For my generation it’s really a part of how we are educated ourselves, to bring music to as many people as possible. Never to dumb it down, but to share our own abilities and excitement. When Partners was in residence in Joplin, Mo., we played for people who had never heard classical chamber music before, never heard a live orchestra, but they could not get enough of our playing.”

And with that, his flight to Los Angeles was called.

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