SASO, Lerner heading back to Oaxaca

Opera is not native to the culturally rich southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, but a Tucson conductor and his orchestra are among those trying to change that.

Linus Lerner, conductor and music director of the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, will lead more than 100 vocalists from Mexico, the U.S., Italy and Lerner’s native Brazil in a pair of full-staged operas — Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” — as part of the third annual Oaxaca Opera Festival.

Members of SASO, as well as musicians from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and from Oaxaca, will perform as they have in two earlier festivals in 2013 and 2014. Both of those festivals included concerts of opera scenes, but nothing as elaborate as this year.

Lerner founded the Oaxaca Opera Festival with Maribel Sanchez of Oaxaca with the intention of providing training opportunities to mostly Mexican vocalists. Many of them had little exposure to opera.

The event has grown to be one of Mexico’s premiere music festivals and one of the few not funded by the Mexican government, Lerner said. The festival is supported by volunteers and donations including those from SASO benefactors Dorothy VanekIrving Olson and Tim Secomb. The event also gets funding from sponsors in Oaxaca.

In addition to leading SASO, Lerner is music director and conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Rio Grande do Norte in his native Brazil.

Lerner will invite winners of the festival’s vocal competitions to perform with SASO at the orchestra’s Mexican independence concert on Sept. 15 at Fox Tucson Theatre downtown. Details:

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SASO’s Story

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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.