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RSW Living Magazine

Finding the Rhythms - Nir Kabaretti leads the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra into the future

Sep 29, 2015 09:02AM ● By Kevin

Tel Aviv, Israel, is 6,617 miles from Fort Myers as the crows—or airplanes—fly. Nir Kabaretti, music director of the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, took a less direct route to get here from his birthplace, but he couldn’t be happier about arriving.

“I fell in love with this place, to start with,” Kabaretti says. “I found a family, people who care about their community.”

Coming off his first season leading the orchestra, Kabaretti displays an enthusiastic and contagious optimism. He’s well aware of the hard times the symphony encountered during the recent recession, just as he recognizes that, in order to continue, the orchestra needs to be relevant and appealing. But mostly he wants to focus on the positives, the seeds he began planting and nurturing—and fully expects to grow.

“One thing that struck me was the huge potential for growth here,” he explains. “We are very clearly not staying behind. We have to be with the modern fashion. We want to be sharing our passion for this specific art.”

Passion for music is something Kabaretti discovered in childhood. His father was a musician, there were instruments around the house, and the future maestro started asking at an early age how to play them. “It was all very natural,” he recalls. “I always had a commitment, a passion for music. I liked the fact that sounds came out. It was a language you wanted to be able to speak.” (Music wasn’t the only “language” that appealed. Kabaretti is fluent in English, Italian, German, Spanish and Hebrew.)

Kabaretti began with the recorder at age 5 and then moved on to the piano, violin and wind instruments. In his mid-teens, conducting caught his attention, and he studied piano and conducting at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University. The University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna was the next stop—because he thought it necessary to study in the city so important to Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler.

After graduating, Kabaretti embraced a whirlwind international career: personal assistant to Zubin Mehta; music director of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra in Israel; guest conductor with numerous orchestras, including the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra and Opera Santa Barbara in California. In 2006, he was selected as the music and artistic director of the Santa Barbara Symphony, a part-time position he continues to hold.

nirdiagonalKabaretti began looking for additional conducting opportunities just as the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra started to seek a new music director. More than 100 candidates applied. Five were invited to guest conduct.

“Musically, we saw what (Kabaretti) brought to the table,” says Amy Padilla, SWFLSO’s acting executive director. “He’s musically worldly. And he has a great way with people. As important as it is to be excellent at your craft, it’s also important to be easy to work with. That put him heads and shoulders above the rest.”

Todd Betz, the orchestra’s principal percussionist and education director (and a 23-year veteran), agrees. “Working with Maestro Kabaretti has been wonderful,” he says. “He’s a super nice guy and very enthusiastic.” The past season was a chance for conductor and musicians to get to know each other, to learn the “unspoken dialogue” that makes the music possible.

“You pick up on body language, facial expressions,” Betz adds. “You become more familiar with what they’re looking to get. That’s one of the cool things when you get a new conductor. It brings a freshness to your performances.”

Adds Kabaretti, “The musicians know I am absolutely there to help them make the best music possible.”

And indeed they have. Padilla reports the past season was a resounding success. Attendance increased 27 percent, and sponsors stepped forward for every concert and series. She credits Kabaretti’s willingness to mix classics with new approaches.

“The programming has to be important to this specific community,” Kabaretti explains. “We did have some blockbusters but also some innovations.”

The challenges were many: finding cooperative comfort with the 64 musicians of the orchestra; broadening offerings without alienating core patrons; seeking a level of musical excellence; reaching out to the community in new ways. Kabaretti met all these. One of his proudest achievements was bringing three local, established choral groups (including one from Florida Gulf Coast University) to the stage at the same time.

iStock_000021156730_FullFor 2015-2016, the orchestra’s 55th season, he plans more of the same—as well as other innovations to broaden appeal even further. A concert honoring the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death will feature performances by the Gulfshore Ballet and principal dancers of Miami City Ballet. The idea is to attract aficionados of both arts, while widening his musicians’ experience. Kabaretti also wants to attract guest artists from around the world, perhaps inviting a film producer to provide commentary for the music from the silver screen during February’s “A Night at the Oscars.”

“I want more collaboration with others in the area,” Kabaretti says. “Multiple choruses, individual artists—maybe a rock-and-roll star—and actors. The community is definitely responding to the new era.”

Tel Aviv may be a long way from Fort Myers, but Kabaretti has landed gracefully and comfortably. Music is an international language, one that he speaks fluently—and for which he has found a welcoming home.

Written by Janina Birtolo, a Naples-based freelancer who often writes about the arts and the environment. Learn about her original one-woman shows based on historical characters at

If You Go

Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra 8290 College Parkway, Suite 103 Fort Myers, FL 33919 (239) 418-0996

The Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra presents a Masterworks Series, a Pops Series and a Holiday Pops Series. Performances are presented at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Fort Myers; BIG Arts, Sanibel; and Shell Point Village, Fort Myers. In addition, its Small Stage Symphonies are held at various area locations, including First Presbyterian Church in Cape Coral and the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in Fort Myers. A full Youth Orchestra program is also offered. The top ensemble from that program will perform at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 14, 2016, as part of the Capitol Orchestra Festival. For a full listing, visit the symphony’s website at