SASO presents Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, Gershwin’s Piano Concerto

William Levi Dawson’s under-the-radar Negro Folk Symphony and the very popular Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin open the season of the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 15 and 16. This program highlighting music of the Americas also includes Conga Del Fuego Nuevo and Danzón No. 2 by contemporary composer Arturo Márquez of Mexico.

Dawson’s symphony is the first work of its nature by an African-American composer incorporating authentic Negro folk melodies in a symphonic form. Leopold Stokowski conducted the premier performance in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was acclaimed for its “imagination, warmth, drama and sumptuous orchestration.” Following a trip to West Africa in 1952, Dawson revised the work with authentic African rhythmic patterns. Stokowski then conducted a recording of the revised work in 1963. That is the version most frequently performed today.

William Levi Dawson was born in Anniston, Alabama in 1899. He ran away from home at the age of 13 to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the only school in the area at that time that would accept African-American students. He financed his education by working on the school’s farm, and was a member of Tuskegee’s band and orchestra. He went on to become a noted choir director, and his arrangements of traditional African-American spirituals remain popular.

Gershwin’s piano concerto is written in the classical form established by Mozart and Beethoven, yet is considered “fresh, exciting, romantic and thoroughly American.” James Dick, known for his passionate sound, is the soloist. His playing melds modern-day energy and technique with an Old-World graciousness. He previously performed with SASO in October, 2012. He has dazzled audiences since his youth when in a single year he won prizes in Moscow, Italy and New York. He also is the founder of the Round Top Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas to nurture and incubate aspiring young musicians.

SASO’s 2016-17 season opens with the two pieces by Márquez. He was born in the Sonoran Desert in the colonial town of Alamos, Mexico, then moved for a time to Los Angeles where he studied violin and other instruments and began to compose. He now lives in Mexico City. Until the early 1990s his music was largely unknown outside his native country. That changed when he was introduced to the world of Latin ballroom dancing. The movement and rhythms led him to compose a series of pulsating Danzónes, a fusion of dance music from Cuba and the Veracruz region of Mexico. His Danzón No. 2 is so popular it is often called the second national anthem of Mexico.

Tickets are on sale now for two performances:

  • The Saturday Oct. 15 concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the DesertView Performing Arts Center, 39900 S. Clubhouse Dr. in SaddleBrooke. Season tickets are still available for $92, a savings of $23. Individual tickets are $24 in advance or $25 at the door and can be purchased by visiting or calling 825-2818.
  • The Sunday Oct. 16 concert is at 3 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 7575 N. Paseo del Norte. Season tickets are $90, a savings of $25. Individual tickets are $23 in advance or at the door. Tickets are complimentary for ages 17 and younger.

Order online at or call 308-6226.

Philanthropist and musician Dorothy Vanek is the SASO season sponsor for the 10th consecutive year. She also underwrote SASO’s first professional CD – Celebration! – featuring the compositions of six Tucson composers. Last spring she underwrote SASO’s second pending CD of contemporary music featuring viola concertos by Amanda Harberg and Max Wolpert with internationally acclaimed soloist Brett Deubner.

SASO’s music acquisition this season is sponsored by the Arizona Lottery. Sponsors for the SaddleBrooke concert are Tom & Carolyn Cochran, and the sponsor for the St. Andrew’s concert is Patricia Linder.

The SASO season offers a juxtaposition of composers spanning nine countries and three centuries. This is the intriguing and wide-ranging programing that SASO audiences have come to expect from Music Director Linus Lerner. Every concert entices.

Two rarely performed works featured this season are Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto and Fauré’s Requiem with vocal soloists and chorus. Three guest artists will debut with SASO this season: Carol Wincenc playing Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, the single-name saxophonist Ashu performing the Glazunov along with tangos by Argentina’s Piazzolla, and young Russian conductor Anton Shaburov who closes the season with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. Other powerhouse symphonic works in the SASO season are Beethoven’s Fifth and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Two popular SASO soloists return for encore performances – Edwin E. Soo Kim for Elgar’s Violin Concerto and Melanie Chae for Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

SASO presents its five-concert series in SaddleBrooke (north of the town of Catalina) and in northwest Tucson. Two of the programs also will be repeated in Green Valley. For details call 308-6226 or visit

The charismatic Lerner will conduct four of the five programs. He’s led SASO since 2008 in local performances plus two tours of China, three trips to Oaxaca, Mexico and one to Brazil. Most recently SASO musicians traveled with him to participate in the inaugural San Luis Potosí Opera Festival in Mexico.

Lerner conducts chamber groups, orchestras, operas and choirs around the globe, traveling throughout North and South America, Europe, Eastern Europe, Israel, South Korea, China and Australia. Through these travels he meets exceptional artists from many cultures and introduces them to SASO audiences – adding an international mystique to the concerts performed here in Southern Arizona.

 SASO is a vital community resource that unites performers and audiences through a passion for music. Founded in 1979, this orchestra presents world premieres, seldom-performed treasures and classical favorites. For more information call 308-6226 or visit


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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.
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.
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."
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.