Federal Largess

The National Symphony Orchestra Visits Us Music Lovers In The Sticks.
By Margaret Regan 

QUESTION: WHAT DO Alaska, Louisiana, Maine, Montana and Wyoming have in common with Arizona?

Answer: They're all remote from the cultural capitals on the coasts. They all have lively community music scenes. And all six have won the symphonic jackpot offered by the feds: Arizona is the latest state of the six to host a residency of the National Symphony Orchestra, based at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

In the space of seven days, by the time its residency ends this Sunday in Phoenix, the orchestra will have given no fewer than five full orchestra concerts and four chamber music concerts in towns and cities all across the state. Their itinerary takes them from the big population centers of Phoenix and Tucson, to the sophisticated towns much visited by tourists (Prescott, Sedona, Flagstaff) and, admirably, on into the smaller places that rarely see the likes of a symphony orchestra (Cottonwood, Nogales, Safford, Thatcher). And in between the concerts the musicians undertake a host of community activities and school programs.

"Their schedule is unbelievable. It's jam-packed. They don't have time to breathe," says Hal Levin of Tucson Symphony Orchestra, which is co-presenting the NSO in Tucson, along with UApresents.

The National Symphony Orchestra is a sort of house band at the Kennedy Center as well as for the federal government, performing regular concerts and such special events as presidential inaugurations. The 100 members of the orchestra perform under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, former musical director of the St. Louis Symphony. Slatkin, a "top-notch" conductor who is internationally known, "has signficantly improved" the NSO, says Levin.

Tucson's big moments in the tour are Thursday and Friday. The regular Thursday evening Art Walk in the Arts District will be immeasurably enriched by a series of free chamber music concerts by NSO musicians, who will perform consecutively in two galleries and a hotel lobby. A string quartet will start the concert at 5:30 p.m. with Schumann at Etherton Gallery; followed by a cellist and violinist playing Gliére and Handel-Hlavorsen at Dinnerware. Finally, a brass sextet delivers Boehme in the Hotel Congress lobby.

The full orchestra plays at 8 p.m. Friday in Centennial Hall, in a concert with pricey tickets ranging from $18 to $36 (children and students are half price). The program, which will be the same in all the orchestra's dates this week, includes Bernstein's Candide Overture, Ives' The Unanswered Question, and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64. A fourth piece is by Scottsdale resident Ron Nelson, a well-known composer who won a commission from the NSO some time ago. Last October at the Kennedy Center, the orchestra gave the resulting work, Panels (Epiphanies II), its premiere.

The residency, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, rather than the dreaded National Endowment for the Arts, is intended first and foremost to expose new audiences to classical music, says Mollie Lakin-Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Commission on the Arts, which is helping to coordinate the tour.

"By the sheer magnitude of the tour, it will introduce some new audiences to the music," she says. "The hope is that the audiences will come back to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra...to see the National Symphony Orchestra in their hometown! It will open people's eyes and keep them open."

Levin agrees. "I think it's great," he says. "It helps legitimize everything we're doing at the TSO."

But the residency is also intended to have rather more lasting effects than just the fleeting thrill of hearing big-time musicians play. The residency provides scholarship money to send five Arizona high-school musicians to Washington for summer study at the Kennedy Center. The winners have not yet been announced, though the name of the high-school teacher who won a similar fellowship was disclosed last week. Rich Christenen, orchestra director at Dobson Middle School in Mesa, can design his own summer program at the Center. Also, an Arizona composer will be commissioned to create a 20-minute chamber work, which eventually will debut at the Kennedy Center.

Arizona is the first Southwestern state to be chosen for a residency, which is something a state can hope for but not apply for, Lakin-Hayes says. What's important, she adds, is for the residency state to have a series of local presenters capable of organizing the NSO's shows.

"We have a healthy music scene here, like the other states chosen. We may seem a little remote, but we have active orchestras."

The program is still in its infancy. Arizona's is only the fifth residency, since Montana and Wyoming had to share last year. But that's another reason, according to Lakin-Hayes, that Arizonans should take advantage of the concerts: The NSO still has 44 more states to cover.

As she notes, "They won't be back in my lifetime."

The National Symphony Orchestra sponsors a free "progressive" chamber music concert in three downtown spaces, on Thursday, May 8. The concert begins at 5:30 p.m. at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave., continues at 6 p.m. at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, 135 E. Congress St., and at 6:30 p.m. at Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission is free.

The full orchestra performs at 8 p.m. Friday, May 9, at UA Centennial Hall. Tickets are $36, $28 and $16, with children and students with ID paying half price. Tickets are available at the box office and through Dillard's. Conductor Leonard Slatkin participates in a Meet the Artist event at the hall at 6:45 p.m. For more information, call 621-3341. TW

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