Southern Arizona Symphony to honor late patron Irving Olson

Irving Olson conducts a SASO string quartet at Splendido

Irving Olson conducts a SASO string quartet at Splendido

You could always spot Irving Olson in the audience at a Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra concert.

He was the little man in the front row of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, his white hair neatly parted on the side.

“He would always sit in the front row and when he would be recognized he would stand up and wave his hands,” said SASO violinist Dee Schroer, who multitasks as the orchestra’s governing board president.

The orchestra made a point at each concert of recognizing Olson and fellow angel donors — patrons whose financial support exceeded $20,000 a year. Olson, quite the showman, would leap to his feet and “put his fists in the air like ‘I’m the champion’ kind of thing,” recalled SASO violist Tim Secomb this week after Olson died Oct. 1 at home in Oro Valley. He was 102.

“He was enjoying himself. He was like a little kid in a way,” said Secomb, who also serves as the orchestra’s personnel director.

“He loved an audience,” added his daughter, Caroline Stellman, who lives in Oro Valley.

Olson had been a devoted fan and patron of SASO since moving to the upscale retirement community of Splendido in Oro Valley 10 years ago. Stelman said her father thought the orchestra was “fabulous. The mere fact that it was all volunteer was remarkable to him.”

Olson and his wife, Ruth, moved to Tucson from Akron, Ohio, nearly 20 years ago. The couple was among the first residents of Splendido when it opened, Stelman said.

Ruth Olson died in 2011.

Irving Olson was born on Nov. 26, 1913, in Connecticut. He moved to Ohio when he was 6 and grew up in Akron, one of five children of immigrant parents. Stelman said her father and his siblings all took music lessons — Olson played violin — when they were young. His mother thought that the kids could form a band and eventually support their parents in their old age, Stelman said.

“One day when my grandmother told him, ‘Irving, go practice your violin,’ he said, ‘I can’t, ma.’ She said, ‘Irving, don’t talk to me like that. Go practice your violin.’ He said, ‘I can’t ma.’ And she asked him why, and he said, ‘I sold the violin’, ” Stelman said.

Olson, who had started a commercial print shop when he was 12, used the proceeds from the violin to buy parts to repair radios, a business he would eventually grow into a mail-order and 100-store national company, Olson Electronics. Olson ran the company until he retired at age 50.

He and his wife spent the next several decades traveling widely to pursue another of his loves: photography.

Olson’s photographs, from simple life-day scenes in his retirement home in Arizona, to slices of life from around the globe, were displayed in museums and galleries. He also was widely known for developing “water-drop photographs,” many of which he shared almost daily with 2,000 followers of his Facebook page.

Although he ditched the violin when he was a teen, Olson remained a loyal music fan, serving as an angel donor to his hometown Akron Symphony Orchestra and then to SASO. He was a guest conductor for both orchestras, an honor won after successfully outbidding other patrons in fundraising auctions.

At a 2008 SASO concert, Olson stood at the podium with the score of Strauss’s Radetzky March in front of him. Every once in a while as the musicians played, he would flip a page, glance down and then back at the orchestra waving his baton presumably in time to the music.

“He would turn the pages of the score very conspicuously, as if he was reading it,” Secomb said. “Obviously he didn’t know where we were, but he would turn the pages. That was a scream.”

Stelman said whenever her father guest-conducted, he would place the score upside down on the podium since he wasn’t really reading the music .

In addition to his daughter, Olson is survived by his son, Stephen of San Francisco; four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister, Pauline, and brothers Sidney, Albert and Philip.

Private services will be held in Oro Valley.

SASO will honor Olson at its 2016-17 season-opening concerts this weekend with a performance of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s spirited Danzon No. 2.

“Irving was an upbeat kind of guy. You don’t want to play something sad in memory of his life,” said Schroer, who said she always enjoyed listening to Olson’s stories about his world travels and his photography. “He was an upbeat, happy person.”

“He was such a wonderful man,” said SASO conductor Linus Lerner, who saw Olson last spring when he donated money for Lerner’s inaugural Festival de Opera San Luis in Mexico. Olson had sponsored SASO over the past few summers to travel to Mexico for opera festivals.

“He told me he didn’t much like opera, but he liked me,” Lerner said. “For me he was an inspiration.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642. On Twitter: @Starburch

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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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.