SASO was the only show in town last weekend

Artist Armando Silva paints along with SASO on stageOne by one last week, Tucson’s classical music world canceled weekend concerts over fears of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s guest violinist was already in town when the orchestra announced that it was calling off shows last Friday and Sunday.

Civic Orchestra of Tucson canceled two performances of its spring concert featuring guest violist Tiezheng Shen.

True Concord Voices & Orchestra pulled the plug on its March 29 Bach B-minor Mass concerts and vowed to pay its musicians half their fees in advance to ease the financial burden. They haven’t rescheduled, but music director Eric Holtan said they will once the health crisis is under control.

They were all following the advice of Tucson city officials, who discouraged people from holding events with 50 or more people because of the highly contagious coronavirus. Hotel Congress and the Rialto and Fox theaters hit the pause button, canceling events for the next couple weeks. UA Presents called it quits to the rest of its season.

But on Sunday, about 200 people showed up at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Oro Valley to hear the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. While the volunteer ensemble performed Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Colorado impressionist painter Armando Silva painted pictures of a heartbeat, a wolf, a saguaro cactus and a butterfly on giant black canvases.

It almost felt like we were sneaking into a movie theater without a ticket, but for more than two hours Sunday afternoon, life felt normal.

We felt normal.

SASO and its audience took precautions. The orchestra knew many of its loyal fans would stay away, especially the older ones, so they live-streamed the concert on Facebook. At one point when Silva, his hands dripping with pink paint, was splattering the black canvas and Maestro Linus Lerner and the orchestra were reaching a crushing climax of Tchaikovsky’s powerful Fifth, a few dozen people were watching online.

Those experiencing it live scattered throughout the great hall, which boasts some of the best acoustics in Tucson for live orchestras, put two or three seats between us and our neighbor; we skipped whole rows of seats, giving the appearance that it was empty.

The all-Tchaikovsky concert, part of SASO’s 40th anniversary season, had been on the books for about a year, but it felt almost as if Lerner had programmed it in reaction to the coronavirus crisis. The afternoon opened with the composer’s triumphant and celebratory Festival Coronation March, which Lerner and the orchestra performed with unbridled energy and a sense of optimism and joy.

The Fifth with Silva, who threw in little hip-hop dance moves while he painted, was the cornerstone of the concert but South Korean guest pianist Melanie Chae owned the soul-lifting moment.

She performed the virtuosic showpiece Piano Concerto No. 1, her fingers flying and dancing, alternating between angelic and sublime and purposeful and frenetic. It was breathtaking.

Sunday’s concert was likely the last classical music concert we will experience this year.

TSO hasn’t decided yet if it will call off its April 3 concert of Mahler’s behemoth “Resurrection” Symphony featuring the TSO Chorus.

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SASO’s Story

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.
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 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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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