There is a critical moment, once a year, "in the life of an orchestra and its morale," according to Tucson Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor George Hanson.
For the TSO, that moment came in late February, "a day or two before the players come to rehearsal." That's when "the program sheet for the following year is placed upon their music stands."
In this perilous financial year, the program might have been a disappointment. The TSO is in the midst of a campaign to raise $1 million in "bridge" funds to make it through a difficult time. Musicians were "aware of the discussions, how closely we're watching every nickel," Hanson said.
When they saw the program, from the premier cellist Yo-Yo Ma to Art Garfunkel, from Handel's Messiah to the best music from video games, from three world premieres to Beethoven's 9th …. well, "the response was very good," Hanson said.
This season, which opens Oct. 1-2, is "the most exciting in my 13 years" at the TSO, Hanson said. It has "absolutely everything except a Mahler symphony."
The range of offerings reflects "the composite view of our programming philosophy," Hanson said. "Do we have something for everyone? In a sense, yes. We have a very wide-ranging constituency. We're trying to suit the needs and desires of our audience, and the needs of our organization."
Hanson thinks about challenging the musicians, too.
"We have to play all the styles, in order to achieve the kind of artistic growth" players want. "In a season where every financial belt is as tight as it can be, we have limited flexibility in terms of" larger, more expensive orchestras, and commissioning and purchasing music. "We need a program without a dip in revenue, yet keeps the players engaged, and do that without overloading the players."
The first program Oct. 1-2 has Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and a musician might say "I've played that in my life 56 times, and this is number 57. If the rest of the program is equally warhorse-like, most would say 'oh my gosh, another one of those programs,'" Hanson said. "Yet we pair it" on opening night with "a piece not played in decades," and the piano work of Alain Lefevre performing Ravel and Mathieu. It begins with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, and ends with the 1812 Overture, "with the acoustical equivalent of cannons" at the end.
"Tchaikovsky expected this to be played outside," Hanson said, which would allow the blasting of cannons. He thought about shooting a shotgun into a barrel, "but the fire department has taken issue with us on that, for some reason," the director quipped. He'll figure something out.
The season's second program marries poetry and music, with a world premiere of three Dylan Thomas poems set to the music of Stephen Paulus. Soprano Elizabeth Futral performs with the orchestra. "To lure a big-name soprano here, we offer the chance at a world premiere," Hanson said. "That allows us to bring someone that, otherwise, we might not be able to afford."
Yo-Yo Ma performs with the symphony Dec. 5. The cellist plays Dvorak's Cello Concerto, as part of a program that includes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
"I think Yo-Yo makes up for just about everything you could possibly dream of," Hanson said. "To be direct and blunt, there's no other way to say it." Ma's appearance is "recognition the reputation of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in the 'industry' is very good. Yo-Yo has been here before, but he has played with piano. As wonderful as that is, it does not compare with him playing with 85 musicians. This will be one of the great artistic moments in Tucson's music history. There is no artist living who can claim his stature and broad appeal. You're really talking about the Michael Jackson of the classical world, Elvis Presley."
It's a sell-out.
"Daunting doesn't come to mind," Hanson said of the opportunity. "I know enough about him, I've shaken his hand, observed him as a human being. I can't call him a friend, yet. It's very seldom someone can make music at that level and not have an enormous, giving human spirit. In our world, Yo-Yo is known to be among the kindest, warmest, most giving artists on the stage today.
"There won't be a musician on that stage who doesn't know the Dvorak inside and out, every note, upside down. This simply is one of those moments you treasure even before you've had it. They will be completely ready for that. For those 47 minutes, nothing else will matter."
Art Garfunkel, too, is "an absolute home run," Hanson said. When he was a young man, it was unusual for Hanson to buy a piece of pop music, but he went and plunked down money for the sheet music to "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," and learned it, and played it, many times. "It's a great song. He's one of my favorite voices in the last several decades of pop music."
Garfunkel will come to Tucson with a pops show, his own pianist, bass and drums. Expect to hear The Sounds of Silence, All I Know and Bright Eyes, among others.
Within the program, there is an "acrobatic show you could bring the kids to and have a fabulous experience." Cirque de la Symphonie, to be presented Jan. 29-31, "is going to be spectacular."
It's an ambitious, full calendar, one Hanson clearly enjoyed putting together. He explained his thinking about Beethoven's 9th, to be performed March 18-21, "the block buster, the most popular work in history," and coupling it with two works by Bernstein, with the help of the Tucson Boys Chorus.
"It's a musical, but also a spiritual" experience, Hanson said. "The works question each other. Both are probing. Bernstein is filled of spiritual doubt, lack of self-confidence, probing, questioning." The Tucson Boys Chorus performs the last few minutes of Bernstein's Candide, somewhere between an opera and a musical.
"It sums it up. All we can do is the best we can do, and that's life," Hanson said. "Then we start the journey over again after intermission, with an outburst of pure joy, the Ninth. It's the kind of program I love to put together."
Highlights of the TSO's 81st season
Opening Night – Oct. 1-2
Patriotic Pops – Nov. 6-8
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma – Dec. 5
Handel's Messiah – Dec. 11-13
Holiday Spectacular – Dec. 18-20
Art Garfunkel – Jan. 16
Cirque de la Symphonie – Jan. 29-31
Video Games Live – March 13-14
Beethoven's 9th – March 18-21
Music of the West – March 26-28
Moveable Musical Feasts at the Pima Air and Space Museum (Oct. 24), the Arizona Inn (Dec. 31), the Tucson Museum of Art (Feb. 13) and the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa (April 18)
For ticket information:
The box office at 2175 N. Sixth Ave., is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday.