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It took almost three years, but Southwest Florida Symphony finally found a new music director. And they didn’t have to go far to find him, either.

Naples resident Radu Paponiu has spent five years as associate conductor of the Naples Philharmonic and music director of the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (a job he’ll continue doing). He starts his new job at Southwest Florida Symphony on July 1.

The professional orchestra announced the news Monday, June 13.

Paponiu, 32, was one of four guest conductors who conducted concerts with the orchestra during its 2021-22 season and were being considered for the job. And it was immediately obvious that he’d be a great fit, says symphony executive director Amy Ginsburg.

“The chemistry was palpable,” Ginsburg says. “That first rehearsal, it was just — you could just tell that there was sort of this love fest going on (laughs). … 

“They were responsive to him in ways that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Being in that room, you just kind of knew. … The energy in the room was magical.”

Radu Paponiu walks down the aisle at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in south Fort Myers. On Jan. 28, he'll perform his first concert there as Southwest Florida Symphony's new music director.

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Paponiu felt that chemistry, too. And he says he was impressed with the orchestra and its skill.

“I felt, from the very beginning that the musicians were giving their absolute best,” he says. “There was a great amount of dedication. I was impressed with their talent.”

Paponiu is only the sixth music director in the orchestra’s 62-year history. Its previous director, Nir Kabaretti, left the orchestra in 2020 after leading it for six years.

This will be Paponiu’s first time working as music director for a professional orchestra. He’ll conduct his first Southwest Florida Symphony concert as music director Jan. 28 with celebrated violinist Gil Shaham.

Paponiu says he’s loved Southwest Florida Symphony since the first time he saw the musicians perform about five years ago. That’s why he wanted to take over the podium there.

“I thought it would just be a very, very good match for me,” he says. “I love the potential of the orchestra and I love the Southwest Florida audiences, and I think it’s a great place to make music.”

Paponiu was born in Romania in the city of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. The professional violinist first visited the United States when he was in the 11th grade and studied with renowned violinist Yitzhak Perlman through the Perlman Music Program’s Summer Music School. He officially moved to the United States 14 years ago.

In addition to the Naples Philharmonic, he’s worked with the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and more.

Radu Paponiu conducting at Artis-Naples in 2019. He's now the new music director for Fort Myers' Southwest Florida Symphony.

Southwest Florida Symphony considered about 20 different conductors for the job, Ginsburg says, but they eventually settled on four to guest-conduct the orchestra in 2021-22.

Symphony leaders originally planned to bring in guest conductors during the 2020-21 season, but the pandemic put a damper on those plans.

The orchestra’s search committee liked Paponiu because of his chemistry with the musicians, his familiarity with Southwest Florida and his plans to be deeply involved in the community, including community outreach and public relations, Ginsburg says. The orchestra’s musicians found his conducting style to be clear, easy to follow, energetic and exciting, she adds.

Ginsburg declined to say how much Paponiu will be paid.

In a news release, Kathleen van Bergen — CEO and President of Artis—Naples, the home of The Naples Philharmonic — offered congratulations to Paponiu.

“It has been a joy to watch Radu’s artistry deepen and his talent gain recognition from musicians and audiences alike,” van Bergen said. “As a cultural neighbor, supportive friend and serious fan, I congratulate Radu on his appointment and wish him wild success as his star continues to ascend.”

Learn more about Southwest Florida Symphony at swflso.org.

Learn more about Radu Paponiu

Conductor Radu Paponiu

Job: New music director of Southwest Florida Symphony

Age: 32

Home: Naples

How he describes his conducting style: “I like to think of conducting as a very natural physical act of conveying music through gestures,” he told The News-Press and The Naples Daily News earlier this year. “I believe that my initial training as a violinist has made a big impact on my conducting style. In the same way that a string player can draw different sounds from the instrument, a conductor’s gestures can also drastically influence the sound of the orchestra.”

His concerts are all about sharing the joy of music, he said. “After endless hours of score study and rehearsals, it is such a privilege for the musicians onstage to gather all energies towards a common goal and to share the result with the community.”

Musical instrument: He plays violin professionally, but only does occasional concert these days.

His other job: Associate conductor of the Naples Philharmonic and music director of the Naples Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, a job he’ll continue doing even after becoming music director of Southwest Florida Symphony.

Family: He’s married to flutist Blair Francis Paponiu of the Naples Philharmonic.

Musical background: Paponiu started studying violin at age 7. He has a Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting degree from New England Conservatory in Boston, an Artist Diploma in Violin Performance from the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles, and a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance degree from the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles.

Other musical work: Paponiu has guest conducted with the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, North Carolina Symphony and more. He regularly serves as cover conductor with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Konzerthausorchester Berlin.

Hobbies: Playing chamber music with friends, fishing, biking and playing tennis.

Learn more about Radu Paponiu: radupaponiu.com