Growing an orchestra — SASO leaders recall their eras
Creating a community orchestra
Founding Officer, 1979
In a trailer in Willcox, while drafting the bylaws for a newly created orchestra, Bill and Barbara Chinworth and Scott Bracher choose the name Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. The Chinworths, Bracher and Janet Lombard are the official founders of SASO, to be known as “the musicians’ orchestra.'” Incorporation papers are filed on July 26, 1979.
The conductor is Henry Johnson, newly retired University of Arizona orchestra director. On October 28, the first concert features cellist Johathan Kramer and a Boccherini concerto. That premiere season also features Rico Saccani, piano soloist in the second concert and associate conductor of SASO’s first season. Our most famous “graduate,” Saccani went on to conduct the Metropolitan Opera and the Budapest Philharmonic.
After the premiere season, Professor Johnson moves to San Diego. On short notice, the officers—all musicians—meet and decide to ask Alan Schultz to conduct. He accepts. A good decision. Alan Schultz continues to serve as music director for the next 15 seasons.
SASO has always designed ambitious seasons and committed itself to performing the music with zeal. The orchestra traveled to Casa Grande, Green Valley, Nogales and other venues in Southern Arizona. The podium used today is the original—maybe it needs bronzing? There are several original players still playing with SASO today; they probably don’t need bronzing!
Showcasing local composers
Two-Term President, 1983–1986 and 1989–1991
Alan Schultz had established a season format that included a large joint concert each year with the Tucson Masterworks Chorale, and the playing of a major symphonic work each concert. A number of highly regarded composers living in Tucson—Camil Van Hulse, Branson Smith, Ken LaFave and Jack Lee come to mind—were strong supporters of SASO and over the years we played several of their works.
A major concern was to find a performance venue that SASO could call home. We aimed for the Temple of Music and Art prior to its renovation—only to be locked out the day of our dress rehearsal. The City of Tucson condemned the building. We were obviously forced to cancel the concert.
That same evening I had a dinner party at my home for a friend who had received the Nobel Prize. A local television crew showed up at my house for an interview about the “condemned” SASO concert barely an hour before 30 guests and a string quartet were to arrive. My two lives—music and science—nearly melted together that evening.
A more successful adventure was an in-studio performance of an entire concert that was later shown on local cable television. SASO, Alan and I received an Oasis Award for Excellence for that performance.
Expanding the repertoire
In September 1981, newly arrived in Tucson, I was a violinist and aspiring violist. I called the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, looking for a community group to join. Donna Kreutz answered—and suggested SASO. So I slid in at the back of the viola section and soon I was grappling with César Franck’s D-minor Symphony under Alan Schultz’s direction. That was my crash course in viola playing.
After a year or two, I was unwise enough to voice some opinions about the running of the orchestra. Very soon I found myself elected treasurer of SASO (1983–1986), later president (1986–1989) and now vice president (2007–present).
The first concert of my term as president was nerve-wracking and I remember racing around town trying to find the various instruments needed to perform Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. But the reward was a particularly memorable and moving perfomance.
Other musical highlights from the 1980s included Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto with wonderful Italian pianist Eugenio de Rosa, Rachmaninov’s lush and romantic Symphony No. 2, Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul with singer Eugene Conley and the guest appearances by conductors Frederic Balazs, Henry Johnson and László Veres.
Donna Bockius Kreutz
Ken LaFave was music critic at the Arizona Daily Star when I joined the feature section and asked him about community orchestras. It was the summer of 1979 and Star photographer and bassoonist Scott Bracher was a founder of this new orchestra. I attended the first rehearsal with Ken and Scott and have played with SASO ever since. Composer La Fave was SASO’s first timpanist.
SASO frequently collaborated with schools, churches and other arts groups. Our largest event was Berlioz’ Te Deum at the TCC Music Hall, where we joined with the Tucson Civic Orchestra, Tucson Masterworks Chorale, Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and Pima College Singers.
We once dressed in Halloween costumes for a ghoulish concert at Nogales High School. That was the brainstorm of Margaret Faddick, who served five seasons as our assistant music director.
I was recruited to lead SASO during its awkward teenage years. Our energy was lagging and we had competition from new orchestras. We refocused on recruiting musicians, building audiences and choosing guest artists and conductors to challenge our musical skills.
One of those guest conductors was Giorgi Jordania from Soviet Georgia, who so inspired us that there were serious conversations about raising the money for him to move to Arizona.
Change was in the air. Alan retired. Meg left town. Sam Kreiling moved to Tucson and we immediately recruited him as concertmaster. Warren Cohen came to Arizona from Hawaii and we hired him to lead us into our third decade.
Reaching new audiences
Two things come immediately to mind when I think about my first days with SASO: In the summer of 1995, I advertised for string players on our closed-circuit TV station. And what did I get? A timpanist! That’s how we found Punch Howarth. And it worked out so well. We not only found a timpanist, we eventually raised enough money to buy a professional set of timpani to replace the relics SASO had been using.
The second memorable event was in December of 1995 when we brought the whole orchestra out to SaddleBrooke. That first concert sold out, and the SaddleBrooke series was born. The following fall we sold out 400 season tickets in 45 minutes and raised more than $9,000. Later we moved to a bigger hall and played for more than 600 SaddleBrooke residents. We also launched the first fundraising gala at SaddleBrooke.
One reason the founders selected the name “Southern Arizona” for the orchestra was because it was intended to serve communities beyond Tucson. We’re pleased to help get SASO back on the road again!
I joined the orchestra in 1987 at the invitation of Dr. Bob Baker, a medical colleague and violinist. He even sold me a decent violin in place of the “cigar box” on which I had been playing. He’s since moved on to that great orchestra in the sky and left me to eventually become president of SASO in 2003.
Warren Cohen was music director, commuting from Phoenix for rehearsals and performances, bringing with him his lovely wife, Carolyn, a soprano with heavenly vocal cords, and their infant son, who crawled around the music stands, chairs and players during rehearsals.
Maestro Cohen became more than busy with gigs in the Phoenix area, so we were forced to seek a new music director. We were deluged with more than 60 applicants (for a salary of $5,000 per season). We selected Adam Boyles, who was finishing his degree at the University of Texas and did some fancy commuting from Austin during his first year. His effect on the orchestra was magical. Our sound improved 100 percent in one season. Our growth in donations went from less than $10,000 to almost $30,000, and from a maximum donation of $1,000 to some current donations of $10,000.
Most rewarding were my associations with certain members of the orchestra who through the years have been its backbone, kept it on an even keel and fostered its success year after year. It is to them that we owe the greatest debt of gratitude.
Securing the future
One major accomplishment during the past few years was getting more people involved—including players, orchestra family members and volunteers from the community.
SASO secured the first-ever season sponsor for its concerts: Dorothy Vanek. A new major benefactor donor category has been established and two donors have already stepped forward.
Our annual StarStruck Gala became well established not only as a fundraiser, but also as a night where orchestra members and supporters could have fun, get to know each other a little better and feel good about supporting such a worthwhile cause.
To become more relevant in today’s electronic world, our patrons can now buy tickets and make donations online. We also introduced patron e-mail alerts for upcoming concerts and a weekly electronic newsletter for orchestra members.
Our accounting system has been upgraded to a professional system with accountability for expenditures, checks and balances with box office and ticket sales, and more accurate attendance figures—which result in more accurate information for grant applications.
While many orchestras and non-profits are struggling, especially during the economy we found ourselves in from 2008, SASO is on sound financial footing.
During my term we completed a comprehensive search for a new music director, reviewing scores of applicants and inviting finalists to conduct the orchestra. Linus Lerner was the best choice as our fifth music director, who continues to move the orchestra forward in quality, community outreach and respect.
A quartet of musicians — a hornist, two bassoonists and a percussionist — gathered in a trailer in Willcox, not to make music, but to draft the articles of incorporation for a new orchestra. They called it the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra and filed the legal documents on July 26, 1979.
None of those involved in the early years could have imagined the phenomenal success this orchestra would have—not just surviving—but thriving. For more than three decades SASO has provided generations of musicians and audiences the opportunity to explore familiar, seldom-heard and new music from around the world.
It was named the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra because the intent was to take the music on the road to audiences in Casa Grande, Green Valley and Nogales. Little did anyone image that road would eventually lead all the way to Mexico, where the orchestra performed in the summer of 2013, and to China, where the orchestra has performed on two tours.
This is an orchestra founded by musicians and run by musicians. For 30 seasons SASO musicians have done practically everything—onstage and behind the scenes. This includes acquiring music, recruiting players, renting halls, producing brochures and programs, advertising, buying insurance and hauling the timpani. Oh yes, also practicing, rehearsing and performing.
In January 2007, SASO began the policy of auditioning all new players before joining the orchestra. I was lucky (?) enough to be one of the first players to audition. I must admit it was a bit scary after spending 35 years in the business world. When Debbie Bouchard found out that I had run a large business for 30 years and had also served on several boards of directors, I soon found myself on the SASO board of directors as secretary, then treasurer for 3 years and president since 2011.
During that time, SASO became the first community orchestra to tour China in 2009 with a return trip in 2012. Then in August of 2013, the orchestra traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico for the Oaxaca Opera Festival.
With tremendous growth comes more administrative tasks, so in December of 2012, we hired James Reel as the executive director. We now have individual sponsors for many of our concerts, a growing number of season ticket holders, and an expanded number of concerts we play each season. Our first CD, Celebration, will be released in the spring of 2014.
As we move toward our 40th anniversary, we are still financially strong and our music director, Linus Lerner, continues to challenge the orchestra to make beautiful music for Southern Arizona.