History of the Southwest Florida Symphony
The Southwest Florida Symphony is Lee County’s only professional orchestra and one of the oldest symphony orchestras on Florida’s gulf coast. As Florida’s gulf coast communities began to grow with residents from major metropolises of the north, many of whom were accustomed to having regular access to symphonic performances, local piano teacher, Arlo Diebler identified a need and desire for symphonic music in Southwest Florida and established the Fort Myers Symphony as a community orchestra consisting of 24 volunteer musicians in April of 1961. The Fort Myers Symphony spent its first year performing a handful of concerts in community centers and schools, growing a following throughout the region. A year later, a symphony chorus was established and the orchestra became The Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra & Chorus Association. Maestro Diebler led the orchestra for 25 years, then passed the baton to Maestro Joseph Eger, who led the orchestra for the next four seasons.
In 1990, Maestro Paul Nadler, a staff conductor with the New York Metropolitan Opera and founder of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra was appointed as music director and conductor. Nadler launched the Sanibel Series in 1993 in order to expand the orchestra’s community reach.
In 2001, the symphony welcomed Cleveland Pops founder, Maestro Carl Topilow as its Pops conductor and Maestro Joseph Caulkins as its director of choruses. Maestro Caulkins established the Stained Glass Series to showcase the organization’s choral talent, bringing adult and children’s choral groups to area churches to perform. During the 2005-2006 season, the orchestra bade farewell to Maestro Topilow and Maestro Nadler who has an enduring role with the Southwest Florida Symphony as Conductor Emeritus.
For several seasons after Maestro Topilow’s departure, world-renowned Maestro Erich Kunzel led the symphony’s Pops programs and the Southwest Florida Symphony welcomed Maestro Michael Hall as its music director in 2007. He served until 2012 at which time the organization began a search for its fifth music director in its 53-year history. Maestro Leif Bjaland was appointed as the symphony’s artistic advisor to lead the search process and oversee artistic planning during this interim period. The search culminated at the end of the 53rd season with the appointment of internationally renowned Maestro Nir Kabaretti as the orchestra’s music director and conductor. Since Maestro Kabaretti’s appointment, symphony attendance has soared as a result of his forward thinking artistic leadership and warm personality that radiates from the stage.
Since its inception more than a half century ago, the Southwest Florida Symphony has grown to a roster of 65 world-class musicians. Each season the orchestra presents a series of five Masterworks Concerts, three Pops Concerts and a Holiday Pops Concert, all held at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall at FSW. In addition to expanding its chamber concert series, which is now called the Small Stage Symphonies Series, to multiple communities throughout Southwest Florida the symphony has begun performing in other cities throughout the state.