The TSO is not letting economic doldrums ruin its diamond anniversary.

Jewel of a Season 

The TSO is not letting economic doldrums ruin its diamond anniversary.

It's a hell of a time for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra to throw a birthday party.

The TSO and its music director, George Hanson, have big plans for the upcoming 75th anniversary season, including nine commissioned works by the likes of Stephen Paulus, Daniel Asia and Roberto Sierra; big soloists like James Galway and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg; guest appearances by Hanson's predecessors, Robert Bernhardt and William McGlaughlin; and the debut of its own, partly professional house chorus.

All this expense and expansion comes during an economic slump so bad that many orchestras are playing their own funeral marches.

Last week alone, the Columbus Symphony projected a $300,000 deficit for this season; the Florida Philharmonic in Miami filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; and the Pittsburgh Symphony canceled its 2004 European tour.

And in the past month, the Rochester Philharmonic barely saved its summer season through emergency fund-raising and by getting the musicians to forfeit one week's pay; the debt-ridden Maui Symphony canceled its last three concerts of the season; the Louisville Orchestra missed its payroll and tried to get its musicians to accept salary cuts; Lincoln Center sliced its $1.5 billion renovation in half (meaning that the New York Philharmonic's acoustically troubled hall won't be replaced after all); the Pittsburgh Symphony put its $40 million concert hall up for sale; the Utica Symphony announced it was moving from a 3,000-seat auditorium to a 500-seat venue; the Rochester and Buffalo philharmonics started talking about a merger to escape nearly $2 million in debt; the San Antonio Symphony considered dissolving; and the Savannah Symphony folded permanently.

Even the Tucson Symphony hasn't exactly been singing an ode to economic joy. This past year saw a one-third drop in winter visitors, whose absence was felt at the box office. And in December, the orchestra canceled a potentially money-losing pops concert with Peter Nero.

Government largesse--what's left of it--isn't supporting the orchestras' primary mission. True, last week, the National Endowment for the Arts handed $3 million to more than 40 orchestras (including the Tucson Symphony) and several other classical-music organizations. But this funding is earmarked for "access, arts learning and heritage and preservation"--meaning special efforts, like the TSO's outreach program to rural communities. This money does nothing to support playing art music, new and old, in regularly scheduled series in concert halls.

So under these circumstances, it would be encouraging enough if the TSO merely planned to maintain its current activities. In taking several steps forward right now, the orchestra is showing courage and a commitment to the community--but its success will depend on the community's commitment to the orchestra.

The Phoenix Symphony nearly drove itself to ruin in the 1980s by expanding its schedule and boosting its artistic level--expensive efforts, both--without a corresponding increase in its funding and audience base. The Tucson Symphony has had crises of its own in recent memory. Emergency fund-raising and administrative pay cuts helped the TSO narrowly avert a significant shortfall in 1991. Unrealistically high income projections had supported overspending in the development, telemarketing and production departments, and the orchestra paid for poor management with artistic compromise: several seasons of overly cautious programming.

Now, a good three generations of management later, the TSO seems committed to what former Gov. Jane Hull would call "growing smarter." Although the orchestra is vulnerable to deficit, TSO Executive Director Susan Franano says private donors are underwriting the potentially big-budget line of commissioned works. While the economy continues to wallow in fear, self-pity and depression, the orchestra is wisely easing off its push for a new Rio Nuevo concert hall and, instead, is bearing down on artistic concerns.

According to Franano and Hanson, an audience survey this past season showed that TSO patrons are interested in a broad repertory more than anything else--stellar guest soloists, e-mailed program notes, anything. This validates Hanson's past efforts to insinuate substantial but accessible contemporary works among the tried-and-true favorites. The main classical series this past season saw major concertos by Joseph Schwantner, John Corigliano and John Adams programmed alongside the usual Brahms and Beethoven. There were also shorter works by George Tsontakis and by the TSO's composer in residence, Dan Coleman. (Coleman admits he is more comfortable with chamber music, but he has written his strongest orchestral music to date during his TSO tenure.) The TSO's chamber-orchestra series also included pieces by Coleman and Adams, and a healthy dose of Leonard Bernstein.

"My idea of balance," says Hanson, "is having something you've never heard before--but something I think you'll like--with something you know very well."

Hanson is carrying that philosophy over to the 2003-04 season, complementing warhorses like Respighi's Pines of Rome, Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony and the Mahler First with nine brand-new pieces commissioned especially for the diamond jubilee. The works range from a fanfare by Coleman to a presumably hefty composition by Roberto Sierra, using texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning UA professor N. Scott Momaday.

Don't expect the next Great American Symphony to emerge from all this; from the looks of the programs, most of these will probably be compact, five- to 15-minute efforts. But a score's value isn't determined by its length, and short pieces are more likely to enjoy performances beyond their premieres, so we should be grateful for whatever the TSO winds up with.

(But where is Robert Muczynski? The former UA professor and a composer of national repute will celebrate his own 75th birthday in March; his neglect by the TSO is shameful.)

The TSO is making a big deal of next season's guest artists, but don't get too excited about what this means for the future. Two of the superstars, flutist James Galway and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, will participate in special one-shot concerts outside the usual series; this doesn't mean that they and their ilk will become the bread-and-butter of the regular programming. The two other biggest soloists, pianists Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson, have been here before; their forthcoming appearances, while welcome, don't break new ground.

More significant are the orchestra's continuing dedication to music of Latin America, with a new work from Arturo Marquez and novelties by Blas Galindo and Jose Pablo Moncayo (not their standard Sones de Mariachi and Huapango); its establishment of a 120-voice chorus with a core of paid singers for the Verdi Requiem and Handel's Messiah; and a serious plunge into 18th-century performance practice with the help of harpsichordist John Metz.

If the TSO follows through on these initiatives in the coming years, it can avoid the usual letdown at the end of a big party.

"The 75th anniversary is really just an excuse for us to take a bigger step forward," says Hanson. "Besides commemorating the occasion, we want to establish things that will continue."

For season specifics and ticket information, call 882-8585 or visit www.tucsonsymphony.org.

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