Mission & History
65+ years of being here for the community - when we're needed the most
The mission of the Santa Barbara Symphony is to enrich the lives of Santa Barbara residents by producing and presenting the highest quality musical experiences performed with artistic excellence, which is accessible to the entire community; and to inspire a passion for symphonic music in the next generation of audience members, musicians and funders.
Who We Are
If there was a silver lining in the cancellations of live performances during the pandemic, it was that it provided our organization an opportunity and a necessity to look inward. Without the ability or the deadlines of producing concerts, our true impact was revealed. With the significant loss of ticket revenue, we collaboratively examined every line item in our budget and in our offerings. Without a clear path forward, we began to learn how to ask questions, and ask for help. We found joy and connection as we realized that our staff, board, musicians, teachers, along with our community partners, fellow arts organizations, funders, vendors and volunteers – all are interested in working together. And we celebrated as new, unprecedented opportunities became possible.
Under the artistic leadership of charismatic Italo-Israeli conductor Nir Kabaretti, the Santa Barbara Symphony is consistently lauded for its unique ability to present brilliant concerts, engage the community, and deliver dynamic music education programs. The organization prizes innovation and artistic excellence and is widely recognized as one of the region’s premier cultural institutions. Its award-winning Music Education Center serves over 7,000 students in Santa Barbara County through regular and special programming each year.
For over 67 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.
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 impact as an integral part of the cultural life of Santa Barbara County. We will ensure that all community members are aware of Symphony programs and create opportunities for all community members to participate in Symphony activities. We will continue to diversify the Symphony audience and work towards building a financial foundation that enables us to operate with a higher tolerance for artistic risk and an ever-greater focus on artistic excellence.
The Santa Barbara Symphony was founded in 1953, on the belief that a special city deserves a special orchestra.
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, many in the community enjoyed 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 “the king of swing,” Benny Goodman, who performed as a clarinet soloist with the orchestra in a classical and jazz concert.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.
Gisèle Ben-Dor (1994-2006) succeeded Kojian in 1994 and put the Symphony on the map with several acclaimed recordings.
In 2006, after a two-year international search for excellence, Nir Kabaretti was appointed Music Director and in 2008 his role was expanded to Artistic Director; leveraging both his artistic relationships globally as well as his ever-expanding local relationships benefitting the organizaiton.
As a conductor with an international reputation and conducting schedule, he moved to Santa Barbara from Italy with his family, to be the first Music Director to live in the community in decades.
The Santa Barbara Symphony believes that through music, there exists the power to bring us together and to lift up all the voices in our community.