SASO finale is ‘tour-de-force symphony’

It has been 30 years since Tim Secomb and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra first played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

But the memory is as fresh as if it were yesterday.

The piece has that effect on a musician. Like many violinists who have played it, Secomb was drawn into the Russian composer’s intense emotions.

“It is absolutely an incredible symphony. It’s very powerful,” said Secomb, who will play the Shostakovich again with SASO in two concerts this weekend.

“That symphony made an enormous impression on me when we did it in the 1980s, and I’ve been looking forward to doing it again,” he said.

Secomb said he and his SASO colleagues had suggested performing the piece to Music Director Linus Lerner for about a year. Lerner said making it the finale of a season that has pushed the volunteer ensemble to new artistic heights seemed fitting.

“It’s a piece for musicians. Everybody wants to play it,” Lerner said last week, days after the orchestra first rehearsed the work in full. The piece, he said, challenges the orchestra at a “higher level than what we’ve done through the whole season.”

That’s saying a lot when you consider the orchestra performed the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” last November.

“The Shostakovich is a tour-de-force symphony,” said Lerner, describing how the strings are played at particularly high octaves throughout while percussion, winds and brass alternate from very low to high.

Shostakovich penned his Symphony No. 5 in 1937 after his fall from political favor in the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin himself is believed to have panned (writing anonymously in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda) Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” which premiered in 1936. An earlier article in Pravda had decried all of Shostakovich’s music as “muddle.”

Shostakovich retreated and focused his attention on the relatively safe exercise of film composing while quietly working on his Fifth Symphony.

The symphony is musically more conservative and appears to toe the party line. But where Communist Party leaders heard patriotic flashes, average listeners at its 1937 premiere heard the mournful acknowledgement of the millions of countrymen who had died under the Stalin regime.

“It’s very powerful,” Lerner said. “And it’s a statement that Shostakovich was making against Stalin. It’s based on some folk music, but in language that is very impressive. I don’t even have words; it’s just a wonderful work. And it’s a pleasure to conduct. It’s exhilarating.”

SASO opens this weekend’s concerts with Tucson composer David Isaac’s Patriotic Overture and Bottesini’s Concerto for Double Bass, No. 2 in B minor with guest bass players Waldir Bertipaglia and Catalin Rotaru.

If you go

  • What: Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra season finale.
  • 7:30 p.m. Saturday at DesertView Performing Arts Center, 39900 S. Clubhouse Drive in SaddleBrooke.
  • 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 7575 N. Paseo del Norte.
  • Tickets: For SaddleBrooke, $21 in advance at and $23 at the door; 825-2818. For St. Andrew’s, $20 online at or at the door; children 17 and younger are free.
  • Program: Isaac’s Patriotic Overture Bottesini’s Concerto for Double Bass, No. 2 in B minor, featuring bassists Waldir Bertipaglia and Catalin Rotaru. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor.

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SASO’s Story

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.