Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra Opens Season with Flare

TUCSON, AZ — The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra performs a riveting program of Mexican and French masterpieces in their season-opening cycle on October 20th and 21st, led by internationally recognized conductor Linus Lerner.

Pianist Sandra Shen will join SASO for a second time, performing Saint-Saëns’ popular Piano Concerto No. 2. Shen enjoys a rising international career as a concert pianist. She is a Steinway artist and was recently named Guest Distinguished Faculty at Furman University. She has performed at renowned music halls in 14 countries and has won several prestigious awards, performing repertoire from baroque to contemporary. Lerner and the Orchestra look forward to sharing the stage with her again.

Three works by two great Mexican composers grace the concert program: Carlos Chávez’ Symphony No. 2 (Sinfonía India), and two works by Arturo Márquez: Conga del Fuego Nuevo and Danzón No. 2. Chávez is one of Mexico’s most celebrated composers and the Sinfonía is his most popular work. The one-movement symphony is based on melodies of indigenous people of different areas of Mexico, and uses a wide assortment of traditional percussion instruments to augment the full orchestra with evocative sounds of tribal dances and infectious rhythms in constantly changing time signatures.

The two pieces by Márquez will be exciting bookends to the concert. Márquez, born in Sonora in 1950, is one of Mexico’s most performed contemporary composers, and the Conga and the Danzón have become wildly popular works. Opening the concert, the Conga del Fuego Nuevo (Conga of the New Fire) is inspired by the Afro-Cuban conga. Márquez’s version captures the excitement and infectious rhythmic drive of this music. His Danzón No. 2 is one of nine Danzóns that he has written based on music of Cuba and the Veracruz region of Mexico. It creates excitement through percussive, driving and at times complex rhythms, interspersed with a few more languid moments. In 2007, it was played by the Simon Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela on tour in the USA, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, which increased the popularity of this piece and other music by Márquez.

SASO has championed many Latin American works over the years, and it continues many projects and partnerships across the border. SASO travels every summer to perform at the San Luis Opera Festival in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. This year was SASO’s third at the festival, and the second iteration of the Linus Lerner International Voice Competition. Winners of the competition were recently featured with SASO at the Mexican Independence Day Celebration Concert at the Fox Tucson Theater this past September.

Finally, Debussy’s Petite Suite, composed from 1886 to 1889, was originally written for piano duet, and was later orchestrated by his contemporary Henri Büsser. The suite comprises four short movements; the first two intended as settings of Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes.  Under Lerner’s baton, the orchestra promises to bring out the evocative imagery Debussy imbued in the suite.

Linus Lerner returns to Tucson for his tenth season with SASO after a summer conducting around the world, with appearances in Italy, Portugal, Mexico and Brazil. Lerner is praised for his “infectiously energetic and boundlessly impassioned” conducting style, which can be heard reflected in the orchestra’s lively performances. Last year, SASO made its recording debut on the Naxos label under Lerner’s baton with a recording of new viola concertos performed by the orchestra and violist Brett Deubner. The project was generously underwritten by philanthropist and musician Dorothy Vanek, who also continues in her 12th consecutive year as SASO’s season sponsor.

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.

Performances are Saturday, October 20th at 7:30 pm at DesertView Performing Arts Center in SaddleBrooke, and Sunday, October 21st, 3:00 pm at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Oro Valley. Tickets for Saturday’s concert can be purchased at, and Sunday’s concert at or by calling 520-308-6226.

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SASO’s Story

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.
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.
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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.