Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra gets 40th anniversary party started early

The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra is pulling out all the stops to close its 2018-19 season.

Its “Mostly Mozart” concert this weekend will feature a quartet of international vocal soloists and the 50-voice SASO Choir performing the composer’s behemoth Coronation Mass; a dynamic 7-year-old pianist taking on a movement of Mozart’s First Piano Concerto; and a leading Mexican violinist performing Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto “Turkish.”

With the orchestra at around 50 people, that’s going to be one full stage when SASO performs the concert twice this weekend: In SaddleBrooke on Saturday, April 6, and then at Oro Valley’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Sunday.

Conductor Linus Lerner said he wanted the season finale to feel like a celebration, or, more precisely, to hint to the celebration to come when the volunteer orchestra marks its 40th year next fall. The 40th anniversary season opens with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in October. Season highlights include teaming up with high school choirs and the Helios Ensemble to perform Carl Orff’s magnum opus “Carmina Burana” in five concerts in November and a special fully-staged performance of Strauss’ opera “Die Fledermaus” in January.

The Coronation Mass is a perfect big-time celebration piece, with the orchestra trading joyful themes and grand passages with the choir and soloists. Soaring instrumental solos, contrasting vocal soloists and a hopeful sense surge throughout the six major sections of the Mass and take Maestro Lerner to his teen years in his native Brazil.

“The Coronation Mass is very dear to me because it was the first orchestral piece I ever conducted, when I was 19 years old,” he recalled in program notes. “I had worked with vocal groups and choruses, but never had done anything with orchestra. The experience was so enlightening that it awoke my desire to become an orchestral conductor. No matter how many times I perform it, it always sounds fresh to me; maybe because the work shows a young Mozart at the top of his creative form.”

Lerner’s program takes us from Mozart the child prodigy — he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 when he was 11 — to the composer as a young man — he was 21 when he penned the Violin Concerto. He was 23 at the time of the Coronation Mass, which SASO will perform with Mexican soprano Liliana del Conde, Brazilian tenor Adriano Pinheiro, and Americans Kristin Dauphinais and Andrew Stuckey.

“It’s a pretty concert because we haven’t done much of Mozart and the Coronation is great,” Lerner said.

One of the concert’s highlights could be when 7-year-old Ayla Moreno takes the stage to perform the first movement of the First Piano Concerto. Lerner said that the girl, who won the junior division of the orchestra’s 2019 Dorothy Vanek Youth Concerto Competition, is just a few years younger than Mozart was when he composed the piece.

She also seems to be quickly building a résumé to support anyone’s notion that she’s a prodigy like Mozart. In her first seven years, the second-grader has been invited to perform on violin and piano at various venues in Tucson and Japan, including the Tucson Annual Japanese Festival, Tucson Folk Festival, Tucson Museum of Art and several churches. In 2017-2018, she won first place at the Merit Scholarship Piano Competition, and has earned medals two years in a row at the Arizona State Piano Competition.

This summer she will revisit the Mozart concerto when she tours Japan with the Tucson Repertory Orchestra.

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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."