SASO performs the mighty Brahms First February 15-16

By Punch Howarth

Linus Lerner with the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra will perform Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor this month. Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Marquez, a Cuban-Mexican rhythmic romp, will open the concert. Following will be the dramatic cello exposition Schelomo. This work in three segments is in reality a one-movement cello concerto based upon Hebrew musical ideas and history.

Soloist will be SASO’s talented principal cellist, Zoran Stilin. A native of Zagreb, Croatia, he was a prize winner at an early age in the former Yugoslavia National Cello Competition. He also was soloist with the Zagreb Philharmonic, Radio-Television, Music Academy and Gaudemus orchestras. He continued his cello mastery in Switzerland and earned a master’s in music studying with Gordon Epperson and Peter Rejto at the University of Arizona. In addition to his performing with SASO and the Tucson Symphony, he is active in various chamber ensembles.

Stilin later studied with the German violin maker Karl Roy, an eminent world authority on violin construction. As a string instrument and bow maker, Zoran has won top awards from the Violin Makers Association of Arizona in world competition. He is widely recognized as a high-quality string repair technician. He will be performing on his most recently constructed violoncello, soloing in Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo.

I am a bit hesitant in trying to discuss Brahms’s First Symphony as it is such a dramatic-powerful-difficult work and how to cover it in a short essay. I’m sure I will feel the same way in writing about Beethoven’s Ninth for the season’s finale. Brahms procrastinated for years in failing to start work on a symphony, as he wondered how he could  compete with symphonies 3-5-7-9 of Beethoven. He composed six major orchestra works prior to his First Symphony. An interesting side issue is that he composed only 14 major orchestra works against 148 for soloists, voice and small ensembles. Little by little Brahms became involved with the work, and by 1862 mvt. I was complete; interestingly, he composed the introduction after the main body. The entire work was completed in 1876-77. So to look at the Brahms First, let’s go!

Brahms opens both the first and last movements with a slow introduction that establishes what is to follow. In his first movement there is a riveting-dramatic struggle to establish the key of C, where mainly tonic and dominant, C and G, compete over the first 37 measures. Timpani, by playing a strong and steady C for 51 strokes, forces C to be accepted as the home key, but the rest of the introduction establishes C minor. The sonata-form movement is consistently in 6/8 time, and following the ponderous introduction, the music is lighter, similar to a scherzo. The closing coda is slower and creates a quiet ending.

Because the first movement is not a massive, serious work, Brahms makes the second movement the slow one. Marked “slow and sustained,” it is in E major and features solo violin. The time is 3/4 and the form is ABA. Like the first and last movements, there is much counterpoint and numerous key changes. You would expect mvt. III to be a scherzo, but it is instead two dance creations in ABA form and is in 3/4, 6/8, 3/4 time.

Everything presented so far leads to an expected big final movement, which is what Brahms provides. The slow introduction is much longer and more detailed than in mvt. I. It opens very slowly with a huge swell followed by string pizzicato that speeds up and repeats. Then comes a middle section that is off the beat. A chorale led by French horn ends the introduction. Now the famous big tune of the symphony is presented in C minor, and vast development takes place in sonata form leading to a coda in C major in cut (2/2) time for a tremendous and glorious orchestral ending.

The most famous conductor/critic of the time, Hans von Bülow, stated that the Brahms First was Beethoven’s 10th.

This concert will be performed on Saturday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the DesertView Performing Arts Center in SaddleBrooke, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16 in northwest Tucson at Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

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SASO’s Story

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.