Harpist, Violinist, Pianist Win SASO’s Dorothy Vanek Youth Concerto Completion

TUCSON, AZ – Harpist Claire Thai, age 18, won first place and $1,000 in the 2017 Dorothy Vanek Youth Concerto Competition sponsored by the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. Violinist Jacqueline Rodenbeck, age 10, won second place and $500. Pianist Jessica Zhang, age 15, won third place and $250.

Rodenbeck will perform the first movement of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with SASO on March 10 and 11, the piece she played in the competition. She began her violin studies just before she turned five. In 2016 she was accepted to the Heifetz Institute Program for the Exceptionally Gifted in Virginia as their youngest participant and returned the following year. In 2017 she won third place in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s Young Artist Competition and won prizes three of the past four years in the Civic Orchestra of Tucson’s Young Artists’ Competition. “I close my eyes and I can feel the music,” she said. She is in the fourth grade at Casas Christian School and studies violin with Anna Gendler.

Traditionally the first-place winner is invited to solo with SASO but this year’s winner had a scheduling conflict. Harpist Thai is both an award-winning musician and scientist. In 2017 she took first place in the International Portuguese Harp Competition and performed a solo recital in Hong Kong for the World Harp Congress, an honor only given to top performers around the globe. She’s competed twice in the International Science and Engineering Fair and received a Governor’s Award for Innovation from the Arizona Technology Council for her discoveries in chemistry and environmental engineering.  She’s a home-schooled senior who studies harp with Christine Vivona and Carrol McLaughlin. For the SASO competition she played the third movement of Ginastera’s Harp Concerto. Thai has been a member of the Young Composers Project for seven years and her piece, Prism, was featured in the 2015 Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s Celebrate the Future concert.

To win the third-place prize, pianist Zhang performed the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. She is 15, a student at Hamilton High School in Chandler and studies piano with Fei Xu.

SASO’s ninth annual youth competition attracted entrants from Chandler, Gilbert, Marana, Oro Valley, Sierra Vista and Tucson. The judges included several SASO musicians. “Every year we are amazed at the depth of talent that these young musicians display,” said Tim Secomb, vice president of the orchestra and member of the selection committee. “It’s quite a challenge to narrow the field and select the winners.”

The SASO concerto competition is designed to recognize and support outstanding young high school musicians, encouraging them to polish performance skills and build real-life experience. It is named in honor of longtime arts patron Dorothy Vanek, who is SASO’s season sponsor for the 11th consecutive year.

Rodenbeck will perform with SASO on Saturday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the DesertView Performing Arts Center in SaddleBrooke, and on Sunday, March 11 at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 7575 N. Paseo Del Norte in northwest Tucson. The program also includes Tucson guitarist Pete Fine performing his Concerto No. 2 for Electric Guitar and Orchestra. Soprano Christi Amonson returns to SASO to solo in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Poulenc’s Gloria with the 45-voice SASO Chorus.

The SASO youth concerto competition is open to Arizona high school students who play any orchestral instrument, including piano. Younger students are also accepted with a recommendation from their teacher. Previous first-place winners are pianist Nicholas Turner, violinist Tiffany Chang, violinist Bobae Johnson, cellist Benjamin Nead, pianist Joyce Yang, cellist Sara Page, cellist Nicholas Mariscal and pianist Rebecca Shiao. Four are Tucsonans. Chang is from Chandler. Johnson and Yang are from Phoenix.

Founded in 1979, SASO has grown into a vital community resource that unites performers and audiences through a mutual love of music. The orchestra presents a wide range of compositions, including world premieres, seldom-performed treasures and popular classics. SASO brings together student, amateur and professional musicians with exceptional soloists, composers and conductors. Under the baton of Music Director Linus Lerner, this local community orchestra has twice traveled to China, performed three times in Oaxaca, Mexico, once in Brazil and for the past two summers at the San Luis Potosí Opera Festival in Mexico.  SASO presents five programs each season in two or more locations. For more information, visit www.sasomusic.org or call (520) 308-6226.

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SASO’s Story

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