For Artistic Director, Ball is Well

By Steven Libowitz   |   October 4, 2018
Nir Kabaretti conducts business for SB Symphony’s upcoming ball, on the horizon Friday, October 19

If the Santa Barbara Symphony were an individual, it would have just qualified to start collecting Social Security. But instead of kicking back and resting on its laurels at age 65, hunkering down reminiscing over good times from a rocking chair, the orchestral organization is instead amping up its ambitions in just about every way, from fundraising to outreach and programming.

Not that the Santa Barbara Symphony doesn’t have a lot to be proud of in its past, a history that includes its humble beginnings as a community orchestra, through the Arujan Kojian era, when the conductor’s international experience led to a measured growth of the ensemble’s artistry, to the current artistic director, Nir Kabaretti, who signed on in 2006 as the ensemble’s sixth music director and two years later led the Santa Barbara Symphony into a new era at the newly restored Granada Theatre. 

Along the way, the organization has seen an explosive expansion in its professionalism, as open seats have become highly sought-after by top music school graduates and experienced players. “Our artistic product has vastly improved just since I’ve been here,” said Kabaretti, who has overseen a sizeable changeover in chairs during his tenure. “I’m very happy with our roster right now, and it just keeps getting better.”

The orchestra’s history also includes an astonishingly popular and effective educational outreach. More than 300 largely underprivileged fourth graders participate in the Bravo program every week, representing the youngest musicians under the auspices of the symphony, whose music van also reaches 70 classes a year and has shown instruments to approximately 70,000 kids in its 40-year history.

Community outreach was also the focus of the benefit concert last January, performed just nine days after the Montecito debris flow devastated the area, raising $60,000 for relief efforts through donations. ‘It was not even our core audience who filled the theater,” noted Kevin Marvin, the symphony’s executive director who has been on staff for just 18 months. “It was just people who needed a respite, a place to go where they felt safe to escape for a couple of hours. I saw the music wash over them, washing away their cares and grief, at least for a couple of hours. That’s one of the great ways the symphony matters, because we can respond and be an impactful part of the community.”

The community itself is very much a big piece of the ensemble’s thinking as it looks to the future, in terms of programming, outreach, and even fundraising. “For any organization to last this long is amazing, especially given the change in the economic climate over the years,” said Marvin, a one-time piano performance major who jettisoned 25 years in banking to return to his original passion with a career in arts management. “To actually be healthy and able to expand with momentum is truly wonderful. There’s a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes to stabilize and grow through organizational development, board development, an endowment to secure the symphony for the future, putting systems in place that will be here long after I’m not. So, our 65th anniversary is as much of a kickoff as it is a look back.”

Among the new initiatives is a revival of The Symphony Ball, which takes place on Friday, October 19, at the Hilton Beachfront Resort. The ball, which Marvin said hadn’t been held in many years, plans to transport guests back to the golden era of supper clubs, the social-and-arts phenomenon that was all the rage during Prohibition and through the 1930s and beyond. 

Serving as the evening’s hostess is Broadway and opera star Lisa Vroman, who made her New York debut in 1990 in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Aspects of Love and later played the role of Christine in Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera for two years on Broadway, and five in San Francisco. Members of the Santa Barbara Symphony and the swing band Art Deco will also provide the musical entertainment as guests enjoy cocktails and a silent auction, followed by dinner and dancing under the stars in the hotel’s beach-adjacent Plaza del Sol. Anne Smith Towbes and Janet Garufis serve as co-chairs of the event, with individual tickets starting at $300, with tables and sponsorships available.

The fundraising gala takes place on the eve of the symphony’s 2018-19 season, which begins with concerts on October 20-21 that open with Ernst von Dohnányi’s folk- and gospel-infused American Rhapsody, which, not coincidentally, was written in 1953, the year the Symphony started, and also includes Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.Down the road are much more imaginative offerings, including more collaborations with other local arts organizations (notably Amadeus Live accompanying a screening of the classic film The Soldier’s Tale and The Rite of Spring with State Street Ballet), a tribute to Montecito’s legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, a second Holiday Pops concert joining the annual New Year’s Eve show, “Pictures at an Exhibition”, complete with projected art.

Not to mention Verdi’s Requiem, with a massive community chorus joining the musicians on stage. “We’re going to have 250 people on stage, which is logistically complex but very exciting,” Kabaretti said.

“The symphony needs to look at ways to bring in new audiences without messing up the core one,” Marvin said. “We’re mindful of the marketplace, seeing what’s not being offered here, where the opportunities to grow are, and how we might create bigger audiences. That’s why we’re always trying new things.”

Artistic director Kabaretti added that the programming clearly indicates the direction Santa Barbara Symphony is heading: “It’s no longer just a musical experience but goes way beyond. Quite clearly by this point, the community understands that our DNA is not just a standard symphony.”

Given that SB Symphony is still thinking like an ambitious young adult at age 65, that’s some impressive DNA.

(For information and tickets to The Symphony Ball, or the 2018-19 concert season performances, visit or call (805) 898-9386.)


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