An Online Series with In-Person Performances

By Steven Libowitz   |   October 21, 2020
Santa Barbara Symphony’s reimagined 2020-2021 performance season kicks off October 17 with a concert conducted and curated by Nir Kabaretti

The Santa Barbara Symphony’s reimagined 2020-2021 performance season launches this weekend first as an online-only series – although the musicians are performing live in person. And while plans have already been put in place to allow audiences up to about 30 percent capacity at its home venue of the Granada Theatre starting in January, the season will remain virtual straight through the spring if the pandemic continues unabated. But either way, the symphony is one of the few performing arts organizations in the country committed to creating an innovative path forward that includes a full season of live concerts even if everybody has to watch at home. 

The ambitious adventure begins at 7 pm on Saturday, October 17, with Broadway star Lisa Vroman singing selections from the Great American Songbook in an intimate style cabaret concert conducted and curated by Nir Kabaretti, music and artistic director. Hosted by actress-singer-filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis, who lives in Montecito, this opening night concert merely serves as the appetizer to a season that includes works by Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Mozart, and Copland amid pieces the orchestra has never presented before, such as African American composer George Walker and Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, as well as genres you wouldn’t have seen pre-pandemic. 

Plans for the season include a new livestream format that not only captures the live performances but also features interviews and 360-degree access to the musicians, both onstage and backstage at the Granada Theatre. Full season details, including program, notes, safety protocols, tickets and more, are available at the symphony’s website, 

Kabaretti talked about the new approach, the themes and thrust, over the phone last weekend. 

Q. How has the pandemic closures affected you, personally and professionally?

A. I’ve been in town since March, which is the first time in my professional life that I’ve spent more than three weeks in one place. I’d never even seen fruit on the trees that we have at our house here because that only happens in the summertime (when I’m overseas). The positive thing about that was being able to be in the community to see what’s going on, to know and learn and be more connected with our followers and with friends. But I basically did not touch the baton for the last seven months.

I wanted to ask how you kept your shoulder in shape, but more seriously, what’s been the biggest impact of that? 

Since we program more than a year out, I’ve always had a goal, a specific program to get to know and prepare, and all of a sudden we don’t even know what will be the next month. It’s been hard to even figure out how to pace my learning studies. I’ve been so goal oriented, so focused on the upcoming seasons, it was strange not to have anything to work on. For most musicians, once we have a goal, it motivates us to study, to practice, and focus more. But at the same time, there was a lot to learn about how to do it in different ways and to deliver our mission, to stay connected with our audience and enrich people’s lives through music even though we can’t be in person. And I had time to look at pieces that I had never heard before and research new music and explore some new scores. But it’s definitely a relief that we finally are going to get together at the Granada and play music together again as an orchestra, even if it’s a smaller ensemble. 

Before we get to the actual programs, can you talk about why it was important for the Symphony to get ahead of the curve here when most major orchestras are staying dark for at least the beginning of the season? 

For one thing, it gives the right signal for the community that we are committed to deliver live music but also that you have to invest in us so that we make sure that we can stay here after the pandemic is over. We don’t have a big endowment that can carry you during difficult times, so we have to be very creative in finding ways to deliver music and keep our operation going. Not to be pessimistic, but I think organizations that cannot deliver something like what we’re doing now might find themselves in trouble a year from now. That’s why we developed this streaming idea, which we’ve never done anything like before. 

Music is part of our human culture. Bringing music is bringing joy which is something that everybody needs. There is a lot of content online, and we all have access to YouTube and other social media. But there’s something to making music with your community, where you know the people who are playing, and they are on the same stage together, even if it’s just being seen online. 

Let’s talk about the season. What drove the programming choices and the selection of soloists? 

Knowing that traveling is an issue as is having a big orchestra because of distancing, I had to think in terms of how we can highlight our really fantastic local artists. So we have a program with (former concertmaster) Gilles Apap,who lives around the corner. Then I found out that a baritone (Valdis Jansons) whom I worked with in Italy had moved to Goleta, which I found out when I ran into him in the grocery store. (With the music), I found the piece that was written for the Canadian Brass when they were in residence at the Music Academy called The Santa Barbara Sonata. It’s really a celebration of our community coming together. 

Also, there are some Mahler arrangements, one done by Schoenberg, that can be reduced to a really small ensemble. And we originally wanted to do a big Beethoven gala, but that wasn’t going to work, so we turned it into a chamber music concert but with some arrangements we haven’t played before, such as the piano sonata played on marimba. 

I decided we should be a little bit more generous with exploring together pieces that are unknown, especially in times like this while also bringing American composers as we go through (the pandemic). It’s always a challenge to balance the season mixing music that audiences already like while also encouraging them to listen to stuff that they may not know. That’s part of our mission too, and this season does that with a few of the programs.  

We have that one concert with African-American composers because having ethnic diversity is important, but so is style diversity. So we’re kicking off the season with the Broadway cabaret but also bringing bluegrass and lots of other genres because diversity is key for the future of our industry. 


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