SASO concert goes from sorrow to surprise

[The] Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra this weekend will host a teen violinist from Phoenix in a concert that also features an internationally known violist from our backyard.

The program for the volunteer orchestra’s “Hong-Mei Xiao and a Masquerade” concerts also includes a sobering work written by a member of the orchestra.

Michael Keifer, the orchestra’s principal trumpet, composed “Psalm 22” after the death of a child, said SASO Music Director Linus Lerner.

“It’s a very deeply religious piece. I don’t normally put on a lot of religious pieces, but it is very beautiful and I really liked it,” Lerner said.

Lerner said Keifer references the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and Psalm 22 in a piece that expresses the breadth of emotions you would expect from someone going through such tragedy: anger, resolution, hope.

“There are instances in the piece where the cello plays these sorrowing melodies that sound like crying,” Lerner said.

A trombone joins the cello to give the piece its religious solemnity; an oboe chimes in on the “Wondrous Cross” movement offering a glimmer of hope.

“It’s so beautiful,” the conductor said. “I really love this piece and SASO is doing a great job with it. I may consider recording it in the future.”

Tucson violist Hong-Mei Xiao, who teaches at the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music, has performed to critical acclaim on stages throughout the world. She will perform Martinu’s lesser played “Rhapsody” Concerto composed while the Czechoslovakia native was homesick in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s.

“It’s really pretty and I think Hong-Mei has a wonderful sound to really play this piece wonderfully,” Lerner said. “I wish there was more viola pieces written. The beautiful soul for me is the lower strings.”

Lerner said the concerto was one of Martinu’s earliest attempts at composing in the romantic style. Much of his enormous output — nearly 400 compositions in a career that stretched 50 years — was written in the contemporary, modern style.

“It’s very well (written) and it’s very rich,” Lerner said. “It has nothing to do with the things he’s written before so perhaps it’s one of the most romantic pieces he’s written.”

Also on the program, which the orchestra will perform three times between Friday and Sunday, is Russian composer Aram Il’yich Khachaturian’s “Masquerade” Suite, a work that started as incidental music for the 1941 Russian play of the same name. The suite is comprised of a series of dances from its opening waltz to the galop finale, with rich Morovian folk melodies interspersed.

The concert also will feature 15-year-old violinist Bobae Johnson from Phoenix performing a movement from Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto. Johnson, the Phoenix Youth Symphony co-concertmaster who has studied violin for seven years, was the winner of the orchestra’s 2015 Dorothy Vanek Youth Concerto Competition.

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SASO’s Story

Brazilian-born Linus Lerner, in his first year as music director, challenged the orchestra to learn his native Latin rhythms by playing Villa-Lobos. This proved surprisingly hard to do. We finally got it, but not until the week of the concert.
The visionary founders of SASO were Barbara and Bill Chinworth, Scott Bracher and Janet Lombard. Barbara has played with SASO through its entire history, originally in the horn section, now on bass.
Early audiences had to be loyal followers of this itinerant orchestra, which performed all over the city, frequently in churches. In the 1980s SASO rented the Temple of Music and Art for a concert. The City of Tucson condemned the building the morning of the dress rehearsal and the concert was canceled.
Turkish maestro Orhan Salliel, after guest-conducting SASO in the fall of 2012, wrote to us, "The time in Tucson I shared with you in SASO for me was so special. I felt the real love of music from the bottom of everyone's hearts. It was something I do not feel often—never, ever in the professional world anymore. Please keep it, save it, try to build everything from this power of love for music."
The most colorful performance was a Halloween concert in Nogales—a ghoulish event where the conductor was a clown and all the musicians were in costume.
Our most famous alumnus is Rico Saccani, associate conductor of SASO our inaugural year and piano soloist for the second concert. He later conducted opera companies and orchestras around the world and was music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 2005.
Alan Schultz became music director in Year 2 and continued leading SASO for 15 seasons. He frequently conducted from the keyboard—organ or harpsichord. He also composed several works premiered by SASO.
The first concert was Oct. 28, 1979, conducted by former University of Arizona music professor Henry Johnson, featuring Jonathan Kramer in a Boccherini cello concerto.
SaddleBrooke is home to many of our loyal donors and the place where we’ve held our gala celebrations—first a black-tie dinner with music from "Phantom of the Opera" and later our annual StarStruck Gala evenings from 2008 through 2013.
Composer, pianist and conductor Warren Cohen served as music director for eight seasons, routinely commuting from his home in Phoenix, but one year all the way from Hawaii. His wife, coloratura Carolyn Whitacre, was a favorite soloist.
The largest event SASO has produced was Berlioz Te Deum, presented at the Tucson Community Center Music Hall with the Tucson Civic Orchestra, Tucson Masterworks Chorale, Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and Pima College Singers.
One spring SASO proved it has animal attraction. When it played at the Reid Park Zoo, some of the critters sang along with the music
In December 1995 SASO was the first to present a concert at SaddleBrooke. This was the brainstorm of concertmaster Sam Kreiling. The concert sold out, as did a four-concert series the following year. SASO has performed there ever since.
Adam Boyles was the music director for three seasons, bringing bountiful youthful energy and a passion to serve the music. Then the Tucson native moved East to brave the snow and conduct the orchestra at MIT in Boston.
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