The Confident Conductor

Tucson Symphony Fans Are Looking Forward To Another Great Season Under George Hanson.

By Emil Franzi

GEORGE HANSON IS beginning his third year as music director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. He's given us two superb seasons and is about to launch another.

The Minnesota-born Hanson typifies a younger breed of conductor now emerging, conductors who once again possess strong musical personalities. That Hanson is a protégé of the late Leonard Bernstein hints at that, but he's no Bernstein clone.

Review "A conductor cannot imitate--it doesn't work," he says. What Hanson acquired from Bernstein was a strong spirit of individual interpretation, something lacking in many of those older gentlemen currently in charge of the nation's major orchestras.

Hanson is the son of a conductor, the grandson of a U.S. Army and Barnum & Bailey Circus musician, and he's the great-grandson of a Danish trumpeter. He won both the Leopold Stokowski and the Hungarian International Conducting Competitions and has appeared with more than 70 orchestras and opera companies in 18 countries. He was Resident Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony for five years, served as Kurt Masur's assistant for four years at the New York Philharmonic, and worked with Bernstein at Tanglewood and the Vienna State Opera.

He is 40, married, no children, and loves cigars and golf.

Hanson stays with his orchestra and doesn't deal off guest-conducting spots to fill out the season while he's somewhere else. With those few guests he does select, he's made a "fundamental, self-conscious decision" to invite the best possible and not worry about the comparison. This showed last year with the tremendous reception given his choice of Giselle Ben-Dor, a woman who could upstage Stokowski himself. Despite Ben-Dor's rave reviews, the self-confident Hanson's own podium charisma wasn't diminished by the contrast. From the beginning of his local tenure, he's led his orchestra in eight out of the nine concerts, and three out of the four chamber concerts, and will continue to do so. He takes his responsibilities here seriously, spending 35 weeks a year in Tucson.

Hanson is also general music director of the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra and Opera in Northwest Germany, a major outfit with a $20-million budget (compared to the TSO's mere $3 million), which presents 14 concert programs and nine operas a year, and with whom Hanson will produce two CDs annually. Hanson just gave up his post as the director of the Anchorage Symphony after four years.

Don't think igloos for Anchorage. That city's metro area has about a quarter-million people, and Hanson built a six-program series to almost sell-out crowds of 2,000--proof that a good maestro can draw people without resorting to hokey PR gimmicks.

And while Hanson's demeanor doesn't resemble that of General George Patton, he fully grasps the Patton principle that states "if you're put in charge, be in charge." He alone selects the programs and guest soloists, and he retains veto power on the addition of new orchestral players. It's more power and responsibility than many others have taken or wanted.

Hanson builds audiences by a combination of well-performed standards like Mozart and Brahms sandwiched around new works, a formula that's proved successful here and elsewhere.

"The music of Stephen Paulus was remarkably well received last season," Hanson points out. Paulus is serving as a local composer-in-residence for two years through a grant from the Flinn Foundation. The grant requires him to write one new work a year, and the performance of one earlier piece. "Paulus' Concerto in the American Style was liked even more than his better-known Violin Concerto," Hanson says.

Hanson ads that new music blended with what he calls "meat and potatoes" is contributing to growing audiences elsewhere. "It's a formula used by Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, and they've increased concert attendance by 30 percent." Not all "new music" is exactly "new," however. "The LA Philharmonic had a near sell-out for an all-Janacek program," Hanson reports. Leos Janacek was an advanced composer for his era, but he died in 1928.

Audiences have been scared off for years by much of the quasi- cacophony that was produced in this century. When Hanson brings us works by "new" composers, traditional listeners should quit cringing. Much of it, like the Paulus concerto, is pretty mellow stuff. And there are plenty of old standards to hang with. This season's program still has many familiar names--Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Grieg, and Sibelius.

The "new music" appears to be helping build new audiences, judging by the near tripling of "student rush" discount tickets sold immediately before the performances. One of the high points of last season was a magnificent performance of the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony. Another was a great Mahler Second. Mahler is one of Hanson's great loves.

Like the Janacek in L.A., or last year's Shostakovich and Mahler, much of the music coming up this year continues that old-new theme: Only three of the nine main programs will contain a work by a living composer, two of those by Paulus--his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, paired with the Brahms work for the same instruments scheduled for March 18, 19 and 21; and the commissioned work for the Orchestra and Boy's Chorus, to be presented November 19 and 20 with Brahms' Haydn Variations and Albeniz's Iberia. The third work is Adolphus Hailstork's Celebrations, which is set for February 18 and 19 as part of an all-American program including works by Gershwin and Copland.

The chamber series has one living composer represented on February 6 and 7, with Luciano Berio's Folk Songs placed between two Mozart war horses--Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the Jupiter Symphony.

The rest of the "new" music blends into the meat and potatoes, as exemplified by this week's opening program: Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man; Stravinsky's 1947 version of Petroushka; and Respighi's Pines of Rome . All are popular 20th-century works that are hardly examples of the avant garde. They're fun to hear and are real tests of the orchestra's and conductor's technical abilities, which the TSO and Hanson possess in abundance.

You can hear them at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, September 24 and 25, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Single tickets begin at $8, with a wide variety of season-ticket options available. 882-8585 for reservations and information. TW

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