History and Mission
To enrich our community by creating powerful musical experiences performed with passion and excellence, and by providing indispensable music education and community engagement.
The Santa Barbara Symphony was founded in 1953 on the belief that a special city deserves a special orchestra. Consistently lauded for its unique ability to present brilliant concerts, engage the community, and deliver dynamic music education programs, the organization prizes both innovation and artistic excellence, and is widely recognized as one of the region’s premier cultural institutions. Its award-winning Music Education Center serves 8,000 students throughout Santa Barbara County each year. Charismatic Israeli conductor Nir Kabaretti was appointed music and artistic director of the Santa Barbara Symphony in 2006.
The Symphony gave its first concert on December 12, 1953 at the Lobero Theatre under the baton of Belgian cellist Adolphe Frezin. It was a modest start for a community orchestra.
By 1961, plenty of people were enjoying the concerts under the direction of the Symphony’s first full-time Music Director, renowned pianist and conductor Erno Daniel (1960-1967). The orchestra outgrew the intimate Lobero Theatre and began to play at the Granada Theatre. Ronald Ondrejka (1967-1979) succeeded Daniel and served as music director through twelve seasons of continuous artistic improvement.
In 1976, the Symphony moved to the Arlington Theatre, which had just undergone a substantial renovation. Opening night at the Arlington Theatre featured king of swing Benny Goodman, who performed as clarinet soloist with the orchestra in a concert of classical and jazz. Goodman was just one of many internationally recognized soloists to have played with the Symphony over the years. Others who graced the stage: world renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Grammy-winners, violinist Hilary Hahn and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, brilliant violinist Augustin Hadelich, as well as two famed Santa Barbara violinists: Nina Bodnar and Gilles Apap, both of whom served as concertmaster and soloist with the orchestra. The Santa Barbara Symphony has debuted the works of acclaimed contemporary composers: Sergio Assad, Jennifer Higdon, Aaron Jay Kernis, Luis Bacalov and more. Legendary Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein was one of several composers-in-residence throughout the years.
In 1979, Frank Collura took over as Symphony conductor (1979-1984). During his four seasons as conductor, he added a new dimension of freshness and enthusiasm to the orchestra, and elicited a new level of discipline and performance from the musicians.
Varujan Kojian (1985-1993) took the podium in 1985, bringing unmatched international experience as well as winning charm, ushering in an era of distinguished artistry. The Symphony matured into one of the country’s most respected regional ensembles.
In 1989, the Santa Barbara Symphony was chosen as one of only three orchestras in the United States to receive an Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. This grant funded the Symphony’s first Strategic Plan (1991), which addressed challenges associated with the expansion of its programs. The Plan paved the way to a seven-concert subscription series, free Patriotic Fourth of July Concerts in the Sunken Garden, and an annual New Year’s Eve Pops Concert that has become a cherished Santa Barbara tradition. Having accomplished so much during a tragically curtailed tenure, Maestro Kojian passed away in 1993 following a battle with cancer, and Santa Barbara lost a “world-class conductor of elegance and grace.”
Gisèle Ben-Dor (1994-2006) succeeded Kojian in 1994, and put the Symphony on the map with several acclaimed recordings. She also started the Symphony’s community music festivals, which continue today as the successful International Guitar and Percussion Festivals.
After a two-year international search for excellence, Nir Kabaretti became the Music Director in 2006 and Artistic Director in 2008. In October 2008, Kabaretti led the Santa Barbara Symphony into a new era at the lovingly restored Granada Theatre.
Maestro Kabaretti has established an outstanding international reputation conducting major orchestras such as The Israel Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Orquesta Filarmónica di Buenos Aires, and more. Born in Israel, Maestro Kabaretti graduated from the prestigious University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Kabaretti has worked as coach and chorus master at the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival. He also has been assistant to the music director at the Teatro Real in Madrid and conductor and personal assistant to maestro Zubin Mehta at Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, Italy.
For over 60 years, Santa Barbarans driven by passion and dedication to sharing excellence with others have been the backbone of the Symphony’s vision. The long-term investment in artistic excellence has paid tremendous dividends. Increasing production values, attracting talented soloists and retaining high-caliber musicians is crucial to inspiring audiences, and it’s clear this community craves the highest quality concerts and that our children can be moved by the power of music. Santa Barbara Symphony is deepening its roots and expanding its appeal. As we move into a new era, it is our intention to make world-class music a part of the cultural life of Santa Barbara County; to ensure that all members of the community are aware of Symphony programs; to create opportunities for all community members to participate in Symphony activities; to diversify the Symphony audience; and to build a financial foundation that enables us to operate with greater tolerance for artistic risk and ever greater focus on artistic excellence.
We believe that we live in a special community and that Santa Barbara deserves a special Symphony – the Santa Barbara Symphony.