TSO Turns 90!

Its ability to be highly flexible is only one of the reasons why the Tucson Symphony Orchestra is 90 and going strong.

In 1928, Herbert Hoover was the president of the United States, Walt Disney introduced the public to Mickey Mouse, and Eliot Ness and his “Untouchables” were battling organized crime in Chicago. In theaters, audiences could thrill to Greta Garbo in The Mysterious Lady; at home, a tiny percentage of the population got a first taste of something called television; and in the concert hall, they could hear Maurice Ravel’s brand-new composition, Bolero.

In the Old Pueblo, musical history of another type was about to be made. Harry Juliani, a WWI vet, lawyer, and amateur musician, convinced a group of community leaders and music aficionados to assist in forming a symphony orchestra. A group of about 60 musicians came together for practices under the baton of Camil Van Hulse, a Belgian pianist/organist/composer. The following year, the orchestra held its first concert at Tucson High School’s auditorium, performing both Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and Schubert’s overture for the early 19th century play Rosamunde.

Concertmaster Lauren Roth at the Tucson Symphony Center. Photo by Tom Spitz.

Fast forward nine decades and The Roaring Twenties may be long over, but the TSO roars on. Just as with its inaugural concert, there will be both Beethoven and Schubert programmed during the 2018-19 season.

Sit down for a conversation with three of the symphony’s key leaders — President and CEO Tom McKinney, Music Director José Luis Gomez, and Concertmaster Lauren Roth — and you can tell immediately that the passion that launched the TSO flows through their veins.

“I am incredibly honored to be part of a group celebrating its 90th birthday,” observes Roth. “It speaks of the excellence of the orchestra, its leadership, and all the people and parts involved in running the ship. It indicates their desire and dedication to being relevant and important in Southern Arizona.”

Maestro Gomez adds, “I think this 90 years represents what Tucson has become. There is positive energy happening around the city, and the symphony is part of it. We’re connecting more and more with the community, and I’m very happy that we’re getting wonderful feedback and results from events like the All Souls Procession, and the education programs that we have.”

Picking up on those comments, McKinney elaborates, “José loves saying that 90 years ago, somebody had a vision of building an orchestra in the desert, and succeeded. That piece is our building block for the next 90. It’s great to celebrate our past, and some of the things we’ve accomplished, but we’re really looking forward to the next step for the TSO. How do we continue to impact the community that we’re in?”

The 2018-19 season certainly offers many clues about the symphony’s plans for enlarging its musical imprint on Tucson.

“We have some projects that are ongoing in terms of repertoire, such as including a little Brahms cycle, with each year a Brahms symphony,” says Gomez. “Also performing Schubert, a composer I would love for the orchestra to explore more. We’re adding more of his symphonies. Those two composers are the ones that give me the chance to tweak the orchestra in terms of the sound and the way of playing. Part of my artistic vision is to include repertoire that for some reason hasn’t been performed. One composer that hasn’t been explored from the German Romantic repertoire is Anton Bruckner. We’re excited to be playing his Symphony No. 7 this year.”

“I look forward to opening the season with Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, which is an incredible piece. To start with it tells everybody in the audience, ‘This orchestra has something to say.’ The piece is huge and monumental … and turning 90 is a monumental occasion for a symphony orchestra.” — Lauren Roth

TSO’s music director also is planning to honor both his own Hispanic heritage and the history and culture of the Southwest with an expanded Latin American repertoire. This season, audiences will hear a piece by Evencio Castellanos, a Venezuelan composer, and the U.S. premiere of the violin concerto from Luis Enriquez Bacalov, the Argentine composer who became famous for his scores for Italian films.

The Classic 5 concert will feature the U.S. premiere of a trumpet concerto by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. “We’re doing that with a very dear friend of mine who is one of the top trumpet players in the world today, Pacho Flores,” says Gomez. “The co-commission of that piece put Tucson on the map because we are commissioning together with an orchestra from Spain, the national symphony orchestra of Mexico, and an orchestra from Japan.”

Ask Concertmaster Roth what she is most excited to perform this season and she notes, “I’m certainly looking forward to performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which I consider to be one of the very hardest concertos in the violin repertoire. It’s also one of the greatest ever written, and I’m lucky that it was composed for my instrument.”

Music Director José Luis Gomez. Photo courtesy of Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

McKinney is quick to say that one of the concerts he is most eagerly awaiting is Masterworks 5, which will feature Gomez stepping away from the podium to perform the first violin part for Mozart’s Serenade No. 6 for Strings (Serenata notturna). “It’s a piece I have played with my brother many times,” says Gomez. “It’s a little bit unknown, unlike Mozart’s famous night music serenade in G major — Eine Kleine Nachtmusik — which everyone is familiar with. He wrote many serenades, and most of them have solo violin passages.”

The plans on the horizon include the possibility of a tour for the orchestra, recording pieces that are unique to the TSO, and maybe … someday … a new concert hall.

With a willingness to perform overlooked pieces, commission new works (including from alumni of the Young Composers Project), and an eagerness to feature some of the world’s finest touring performers, the TSO continually showcases its commitment to the community.

Perhaps nowhere is the TSO’s direct interface with the future more evident, however, than the Just for Kids free concerts that take place at the Tucson Symphony Center on North Sixth Avenue. For many children, who lack access to live classical music, this series opens a door to a world they never knew existed. Sums up McKinney, “Two years ago, a girl about seven years old was leaving after a Just For Kids performance and she came up to me. It was her first experience at a concert. She said, ‘This was the best day of my life.’” TL

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