It was named by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaino in 1602. In 1782 and 1786, a Presidio (military government headquarters) and mission were established. The mission has been the headquarters of the Franciscan order in the United States continuously. Its development as a tourist, citrus, and cattle center began when the Southern Pacific Railroad reached it in 1850.
Following an earthquake in 1925, much of the town was rebuilt in a Spanish Colonial style. Municipal laws have required subsequent buildings to continue using the look of adobe construction, resulting in a harmonious appearance that appeals to artists and musicians. A private college, founded in 1891, is now the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California.
In 1953, a group of musicians in the Santa Barbara area founded an orchestra to play the standard symphony orchestra. It was originally an amateur community orchestra, but Santa Barbara had attracted a number of skilled musicians. Among them was a distinguished Belgian cellist, Adolph Franzen, who proved an excellent conductor for the orchestra, getting uncommon results. Over the years, the orchestra evolved into a fully professional orchestra of ninety musicians.
In 1985, the dynamic conductor Varujan Kojian
was named music director and presided over exceptional improvements in standards. This was continued by the equally exciting Uraguayan maestra Gisèle Ben-Dor
, who was appointed to succeed in him in 1994.
Among her qualities of musical leadership and strong interpretive skills, Ben-Dor has been a successful teacher and diplomat. She has added a considerable quantity of twentieth-century music to the orchestra's repertory without alienating the essentially conservative core audience. She has especially championed the music of Latin-American composers. This has attracted the interest of Koch Classics, one of the most forward-looking of American record labels, to record Itinerarios by Silvestre Revueltas
and the world premiere recording of that Mexican master's ballet La Coronela (The Lady Colonel), based on festivities of the Mexican holiday The Day of the Dead. The 1998 release received rapturous reviews.
In 2000, the orchestra released its second commercial recording, also on Koch, of the sprawling and complex Symphony No. 10 ("Amerindian") by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos
. On the disc it is joined by the Donald Brinegar Singers, the University of California Santa Barbara Chamber Choir, and its own usual concert partners, the Santa Barbara Choral Society.