Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra debuts chorus, closes season with a Beethoven first

Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra will debut its SASO Chorus this weekend in a season finale that people will likely still be talking about when the volunteer orchestra picks up next season.

The orchestra has assembled a volunteer chorus of 50 voices — vocalists moonlighting from other community and professional choirs and church ensembles — for its first-ever performance of Beethoven’s seminal Ninth Symphony. Before the Ninth, no composer had dared to cast a choir in a leading role of a symphony.

“It is considered still the best symphony ever written,” said SASO Conductor and Artistic Director Linus Lerner, who called it a “monster of all symphonies” that often serves as a marker of a professional career. “There is the before Beethoven’s Ninth and the after Beethoven’s Ninth.”

“It’s really a massive piece from every way you look at it both technically and the scale of it,” said longtime SASO violist Tim Secomb. “It is really very significant as far as I’m concerned. We’ve done all of the Beethoven Symphonies, but not the No. 9. It is a major undertaking to put it on.”

“It just feels like climbing a mountain or something,” added Secomb, who has played with SASO 33 years. “There’s clichés about it but I’m discovering them for myself. That’s probably why we’ve never done it before.”

The newly christened SASO Chorus will share the stage with 70 instrumentalists and four guest vocal soloists from Mexico. The soloists were winners of the 2013 Oaxaca Opera Festival, which Lerner founded and directs in Oaxaca, Mexico. SASO was part of last August’s inaugural festival and will return this year, Lerner said.

“The idea we are developing is that we will have a chorus we can call on for some seasons,” said Secomb, who also has served for years on SASO’s board.

This weekend’s concerts marks the first time either Lerner or Secomb have ever performed the Ninth, which Lerner paired with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. The program also includes Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez featuring Brazilian guitarist Roberto Capocchi.

“It’s going to be a hard program to top with these three pieces together,” Lerner said.

The orchestra will perform the concert three times this weekend including on Monday night at Pima Community College. It also will release its debut CD, a compilation of works composed by Tucsonans that the orchestra played throughout the season.

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SASO’s Story

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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.