SASO soaring to ‘The Planets’; Shen will be guest

The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra is going to the moon and back to open its 2014-15 season this weekend.

The ensemble, beefed up to a record 80 players from the group’s usual 60, will perform Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite “The Planets.” Instruments include a bass flute, tenor tuba and the rarely seen bass oboe.

“All these interesting instruments for the audience to hear,” SASO conductor and Music Director Linus Lerner said last week after leading the orchestra in its initial reading of the piece.

It is the largest number of instrumentalists assembled for a SASO concert in the last 25 years. The performance will also feature a women’s chorus performing offstage in the final movement, “Neptune, The Mystic,” their voices fading until all you hear is silence.

“The Planets” is divided into seven movements, each taking its name from a planet. It opens with the rumbling, crashing battle march of Mars then segues to the cascading gentleness of Venus and the triumph of Jupiter, brought to life through lush orchestration including a dynamic brass contingent of a half-dozen horns and four trumpets, twin harps, a percussion section led by a half-dozen timpani and a bass drum, and a wind section that in addition to the bass oboe includes a contrabassoon, three clarinets and a bass clarinet.

Lerner pairs “The Planets” with the playful “Rákoczy March” from Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” and Mozart’s technically demanding Piano Concerto No. 21, featuring Taiwan-born pianist Sandra Wright Shen.

Shen, who lives in Northern California, adores the Mozart piece, which she will perform several times this season. During a phone call from home last week, she played the opening phrase of the second movement on her piano. Those few minutes of music, co-opted by pop culture in everything from TV shows and commercials to Neil Diamond’s hit “Song Sung Blue,” beguile her, she confessed.

“It’s basically this F-major chord, but the way he made it is almost heavenly,” she explained. “It’s so pure and beyond this world. Mozart put triplets beneath it to create this restlessness, this earthy emotion underneath this somewhat transcendent line.”

Shen said she can also see Figaro, one of Mozart’s most-beloved opera characters.

“He carves out someone who could be like Figaro, a very witty servant,” she said. “You can see his gleaming eyes; he’s up to something. What’s so great about Mozart’s operas and works is it reminds me of seeing a painting where the artist can bring out extraordinary from ordinary.”

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SASO’s Story

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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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