Donato Cabrera, resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, owes it all to his grandmother.

Along with his San Francisco post, he serves as music director of the California Symphony and the Las Vegas Philharmonic. A figure of stature on the international classical-music scene, he credits his family, specifically his abuela, for making it possible. “My Mexican grandmother wasn’t a trained musician but she was always the life of the family because she played piano,” he said. “She would play mostly by ear songs that she was taught as a child. I wanted to do what she did. That was the initial spark that led me to music.”

Cabrera will be on the podium when singer-songwriter Lila Downs joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concert June 28. “I’ve been a fan of hers since I first heard her on the ‘Tortilla Soup’ (2001) soundtrack and in ‘Frida’ (2002),” in which she a small role and sang several songs. “Lila has such an amazing voice, and an all-encompassing and mesmerizing stage presence.”

He’s also a big fan of Chicago and its extensive music scene. His local credits include stints at the Ravinia Festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the CSO’s MusicNOW series. While studying for his master’s degree at the University of Illinois, “I spent a lot of time coming up to Chicago to see Boulez and Barenboim at Orchestra Hall,” he said. “I’ve always had a connection to Chicago, I love the city so much.”

Downs and Cabrera first collaborated for a Day of the Dead concert last fall with the San Francisco Symphony, where he has been on staff since 2009. “We’ve been trying for years to get Lila to be part of this annual event,” he said. “I’ve always conducted the Dia de los Muertos concert every year there, and she’s always been at the top of the list [of prospective guest artists]. And it finally worked out.”

For the CSO concert, the program will consist of songs from Downs’ Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winning albums, arranged for full orchestra. The arrangements were done by Arturo Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based conductor-composer known for his film orchestrations. Rodriguez’s own works, which have been performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Grant Park Orchestra, “are really wonderful,” Cabrera said. Downs usually performs with her largely acoustic band, rooted in traditional Mexican instruments such as the jarana and arpa jarocha (Veracruz-style harp). “For a band of her caliber to work with an orchestra and hear their works with such a large soundscape behind them, that’s quite an experience.”

Also on the program is Danzón No. 2, written in 1993 by Arturo Márquez. Cabrera selected the work and credits Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for popularizing the piece. “I discovered it through Gustavo,” he said. “It uses the orchestra in an unique manner and highlights all the glories that orchestras can do, in a way that only a new music piece can achieve.”

In San Francisco, the annual Day of the Dead concerts are an important part of the symphony’s community-engagement efforts. Building a more diverse audience for classical music is a subject dear to Cabrera, who just spoke on the topic earlier this month at the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras. “Obviously, it’s a complex issue, but in San Francisco, I have seen how the symphony has become more integrated into the community and its celebrations, such as El Dia de los Muertos. It takes time to establish that relationship, and to determine how can we best serve our community with the creation of concerts like this and similar programs. In San Francisco, the Day of the Dead concerts have been sold-out events for last six years. The entire hall has been turned into a celebration, with artwork in the lobbies and many community groups represented.”

That arts institutions are “finally addressing diversity is an accomplishment in itself. As a Latino, I am proud that my [ethnic] background has a deeper connection with classical music than much of the rest of the Americas,” he said, pointing out that the first opera to be staged in the New World was in Mexico in 1711. “Latino countries have a rich music tradition that many U.S. orchestras don’t know much about.”

But getting new audiences into concert halls often comes down to a question of educational access. Gone are the days when public schools offered music appreciation courses as part of a required curriculum. “I’m a total product of the public school system, and I’m so thankful for that opportunity,” Cabrera said. “It is a challenge. There is only so much an arts organization can do. How we engage with new audiences who have less and less of a background of appreciating music and the arts? We can make a difference by going to schools to perform as much as possible. But making the concert hall as welcoming and engaging is something we can change right away. For instance, do the doors need to be closed with the downbeat? We need to look at the idea of changing the entire paradigm of the concert experience.”

And if only there could be the “Hamilton” of classical music? He laughed. “It’s out there. We just have to find it.”