Tucson orchestra flies to China for series of concerts

Arizona Daily Star photo by Jeffrey Scott

Arizona Daily Star photo by Jeffrey Scott

Sometime while we were sleeping, the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra crossed the international dateline on a jet, destined to make history.

It will be one of the first American community orchestras to tour China, performing on stages normally reserved for much larger, professional ensembles.

“I still don’t really believe it,” said longtime SASO member Tim Secomb, who played a crucial role in arranging the international travel for 68 musicians and another 23 people—including family members and orchestra supporters—who will travel with the group. “This is not something I would have ever dreamed we would do. It’s such an enormous undertaking, and for an orchestra like ours, it’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

SASO Music Director Linus Lerner got the China invite last summer from a longtime acquaintance, Kai Fu, who arranges for American groups to perform in China. Fu, a classically trained cellist who works as international outreach coordinator at Oberlin College & Conservatory in Ohio, arranged the trip through the China Dalian Yilong Performance Company.

The orchestra’s “first reaction was, ‘You’re kidding,’ ” said Lerner, who earned his doctoral degree in choral conducting from the University of Arizona not long before being tapped for the SASO job in May 2008. “It was quite complicated to make them trust me.”
Lerner, who met Fu in graduate school in Florida, said he had to convince the orchestra he was not floating a pipe dream. After researching the cities where they would perform, Lerner again pitched the idea; about 90 percent of the orchestra signed on.

“People in Tucson, we’re kind of skeptical,” said Barbara L. Chinworth, who plays bass and is one of seven original members who will make the China trip. “Then things started to take off. Oh, I guess we’re going to China.”

The orchestra’s tour comes as it celebrates its 30th-anniversary season. Chinworth and her husband, Bill, were among the founding members, gathering a group of musicians together to play for the love of music.

Chinworth said never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined that the group would journey off across the world.

“It is a challenge, but the orchestra started off as a challenge and we’ve taken on challenges. That’s the fun of it,” she said.

“It’s a big achievement for the orchestra,” said Lerner. “It’s fantastic that a community orchestra can do such a thing. It will be a life-changing experience for people who have never been out of the country and never played their music for a different audience before.”

14 hours on a plane, and that’s just the first leg

Sixty-four musicians, most of them with their instruments in tow, and another 21 family members, supporters and friends, boarded a nonstop plane from Los Angeles to Shanghai at 12:30 p.m. California time Saturday (another four musicians and two friends took a separate flight). They were scheduled to land in Shanghai, China, around 5 a.m. today Tucson time, or 7 p.m. in China.

• From Shanghai, they were to catch a plane for the nearly two-hour flight to Dalian, where they will play their first concert Monday at the People’s Cultural Club Theater.

• They fly from Dalian to Shenzhen for three concerts at the Shenzhen Poly Theater including a New Year’s Eve gala on Thursday.

• On Friday, they load onto a bus bound for Dongguan, where they’ll play an evening concert. Then it’s back to Shenzhen for an overnight stay.

• Saturday, they fly from Shenzhen to Shenyang for an evening concert.

• On Jan. 3 they take a train to Beijing to give their final concert there, on Jan. 4.

• They leave China for the U.S. at 11 a.m. China time Jan. 6 and arrive in Tucson at 7:30 p.m. local time Jan. 6.

On StarNet: The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra rehearses for its China trip. Go to azstarnet.com/slideshows

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.

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SASO’s Story

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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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