Southern Arizona Symphony Music Director Linus Lerner, center, with musicians during the orchestra's tour of China

Sounds from the Red Rocks

“Think global, act local” could very well be the mantra of Tucson’s Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. Led by Music Director Linus Lerner, the ensemble has been especially busy this season. In late December and early January “SASO”—as Lerner affectionately refers to the group—took its second trip to China, performing in five cities, and is now gearing up for its first recording project on April 16 and 17, which will be made up entirely of works by local Tucson composers. What’s more, each of SASO’s five programs this season features a piece each by five of the composers on the CD—Jay Vosk, Brian Goodall, Richard White, Bruce Stoller, and Pete Fine. (The next concerts in the series, on April 6 and 7, feature Bruce Stoller’s Open Spaces Suite.) The remaining Tucson composers on the CD will have works performed during the 2013-14 season. The hope, Lerner explains, is that performances this season will entice people to pick up a copy of the disc, while previously unheard pieces on the album will draw audiences back next season. It’s an ambitious agenda for an all-volunteer group, but it speaks to the artistic vibrancy of Tucson, which, in contrast with its natural surroundings, is hardly a cultural desert, boasting the Tucson Symphony, Opera Arizona (which performs in Phoenix and Tucson), and a handful of thriving volunteer groups, SASO among them.

Lerner took time recently to chat with SymphonyNOW about the challenges and rewards—for himself and the musicians.

Ian VanderMeulen: Tell us about the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. It’s been around for over 30 years.

Linus Lerner: Yes, it was founded in 1979 and has been through a few conductors. It’s a pretty solid institution now. One reason is, we have increased not only the audiences but also increased donations and grants. We have a very sound and working board, a wonderful orchestra manager, Tim Secomb, who’s doing a great job keeping things together. We have a fabulous donor who is giving us a big endowment—her name is Dorothy Vanek. In my four years here I have been constantly challenging the musicians to improve. In community settings, sometimes you have people who practice and sometimes you have people who just want to come and play. So instead of making them practice at home I bring coaches to one session and I call it a sectional rehearsal.  I might bring the concertmaster from another orchestra to work with my violins, or someone who teaches at the University of Arizona to work with the trombones. So in a way I’m making them have lessons even if they don’t realize that’s what’s happening. [Laughs]

We increased the rehearsals a little bit—we rehearse two and a half hours instead of two hours a week. We do seven rehearsals before a concert and the last week is three rehearsals, so a total of four or five weeks. Another thing we did that really made a difference in the orchestra—we went to China. [Pictured below] That helped us a lot because we had to behave and play like professionals. The orchestra bonds much more, they know each other, they’re playing literally every night, so it’s like a professional orchestra. And I’ve been challenging them with the repertoire: we just did Mahler Four, for example, and it went really well. They seem very interested in playing those great pieces that normally a community orchestra will never play. I’m really pleased. In fact, I have another professional orchestra in Brazil, and SASO doesn’t leave anything to some professional orchestras in other parts of the world that I’ve conducted. Some moments are like, Wow!

VanderMeulen: With Tucson Symphony and the Arizona Opera—which performs in Phoenix and Tucson—there does seem to be a vibrant classical music scene in Tucson.
Lerner: There is. The Tucson population just passed a million a little while ago, and for that size, Tucson is considered a cultural mecca. We have a lot of orchestras, a lot of choruses, we have the University of Arizona here. But we also have retirees, a lot of people from Pennsylvania, from Chicago and they want to hear good stuff because they’re used to their own orchestras there.

VanderMeulen: You said some musicians are serious and others just want to come and play. Is it challenging to keep people focused on all these challenging projects?
Lerner: It’s been hard with so many things. But I have to tell you, last Wednesday I went to rehearse with them. The previous week I had been a little frustrated because I thought, “Maybe this is too much contemporary music in the same place and people are getting overwhelmed.” And then last Wednesday I was so mesmerized! In one week they had taken a real quantum leap in their music-making. Besides our CD, we’re doing other crazy things this year. We’re doing Tattoo Notes by Glen Roger Davis, a professor at University of Miami in Ohio, he was my professor there. He has done some of the most difficult compositions I’ve seen in my life. We have James Strauss coming from Brazil to play the piece. He’s one of the best flutists in the world and a good friend. He said, “Linus, this will be the most difficult piece I ever play and the most difficult piece for flute.” Glen Roger Davis is a sort of jazz-classical composer. It’s very hard for composers to find the right way to put jazz into symphonic world and have it make sense, and make the musicians play in between the two. Glen can do that, but it is hard for the orchestra. I thought I might lose them this time, and then last Wednesday it was like, “Ah, this is so wonderful, they came through again.”

One reason: I think SASO just really loves to play. In November we had a guest conductor from Turkey, Orhan Saliel, and he could not stop telling us how much he loves this orchestra. He did La Mer, which is a hard piece. At first he was like, “Are you crazy to do that with them?” And I said, “Trust me, they will do it”—and they did. This year we did Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, we did Mahler No. 4, last year we did Sibelius No. 2 and Shostakovich No. 5—really hard pieces. You just have to believe, you have to challenge people to go a step higher.

Soprano Christi Amonson, left, performs with the Southern Arizona Symphony under the direction of Linus Lerner.

VanderMeulen: How did you come up with the idea to have local composers on each of your concerts this season?
Lerner: Well, first we did the Harmonica Concerto by Jay Vosk with X-Factor finalist Pierre Herbineaux. That was a really cool piece. And we did other stuff with a few composers here and there, some had approached us. And I thought, “Why not another project to challenge the orchestra? Let’s record—30-plus years and not a single recording.” But why would we record Beethoven or Tchaikovsky? Trillions of orchestras can play that better than us and have already recorded that. Let’s create a project where we give something back to our community, be our community orchestra, and let’s give something back with composers that are in the community. And it ended up that every composer is so different. If we end up recording a piece called Orion, for example, that’s sort of a Strauss-like tone poem, with big orchestration. So we go from that level of orchestration to a piece that is only strings and harp and a flute made from yucca that the composer himself is playing. It sounds like the native Nakai kind of flute playing. Some people have said we should challenge every city in the country to create a CD of their own music.

The preparations are coming along very well. I was thinking that maybe I’m overwhelming the orchestra with so much rehearsal because we have the regular rehearsals plus one day for rehearsals of the CD recording. My plan is to have two sessions, April 16 and 17. If it’s not all done then, we’ll return to recording sessions at the beginning of next season, and we will have the CD somewhere in November or December at the latest.

Let’s create a project where we give something back to our community, be our community orchestra, and let’s give something back with composers that are in the community. Some people have said we should challenge every city in the country to create a CD of their own music.

VanderMeulen: Can you describe the local piece that’s going to be on your upcoming program this April, Bruce Stoller’s Open Spaces suite?
Lerner: It’s a suite with the yucca flute that Bruce Stoller himself is playing. It’s almost New Age like because it’s minimalistic in the end where the harmonies slowly change, sort of like Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. But it does change more than that so I wouldn’t say it’s a minimalist piece. But it’s a little minimalistic/New Age orchestration with a native flute, I mean you couldn’t go more interesting than that. And the composer himself built this flute.

I think the great thing is when you can perform that and say, “Who says you can’t have native music with orchestras? Here it is!” I’m happy about the results. When I planned this CD, I did not have all the music, so I had no idea of the outcome. I just trusted the composers, and the realm of different styles is quite exciting.

Composer Bruce Stoller with one of his yucca flutes

VanderMeulen: What do you have planned for next season?
Lerner: One thing I will do for sure: Mass of the Children by John Rutter. We’ll probably do Brahms Symphony No. 1, maybe Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, although I’m not sure yet if I’ll have the chorus forces and everything. But I want to do a big chorus year, since we haven’t done anything with choruses the last two years. The last thing we did was Carmina Burana for our 30-year commemoration. And that was a big event, we sold it out, had extra chairs. The newspaper put us on the front page. We have a guest conductor from Bulgaria coming. I don’t know his complete program yet, but it’s going to have a contemporary cello concerto with a cello player from Bulgaria who lives in New York. It’s going to be an exciting year. We will continue playing the pieces from the CD. People seem to like it. I’ve been very impressed by the support we’ve gotten from audiences.

One of the great things about SASO is that we have professional musicians who play with us because of how much fun they have. We have, for example, a top-notch horn player who plays all over the country, a cello player from the Tucson Symphony who finds the time to play with us. These musicians don’t get a penny. We have an 81-year-old timpanist who played under Toscanini who loves it and doesn’t want to retire. It’s a great thing to have a community orchestra where professional musicians want to play, and it’s because of our programming—they really like what we’re doing. One more thing: I have an opera festival that is opening in Oaxaca, Mexico in August, and the orchestra has been invited to play there. We also have invitations for two other places in Mexico, Mazatlán and Los Cabos, and an invitation to play in Brazil. For a community orchestra to be able to do that is quite exciting.

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