On the day after Christmas, volunteer members of the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra fly to China, where they'll represent greater Tucson, their nation, their culture and art in an 11-day, seven-concert tour of cities and venues.

It's a big, complicated, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

"We're not musicians by career," said Debbie Bouchard, a violinist and president of the SASO board. "I'm a CPA. For me to go for the love of my hobby, to be able to go and play in China when it's not my job, that's beyond words."

"It's status, it's pride, it's another culture, it's playing, it's sharing," said Linus Lerner, SASO's energetic, passionate music director. "It's respect, offering what is ours, from one country to another. We are making bridges, not breaking them."

SASO is believed to be the first orchestra from Arizona, the second from the western U.S., and the first volunteer group to be invited to China. The Chinese government is paying for its lodging in quality hotels, three meals a day, ground travel and other expenses. The players are paying for their own plane tickets, at about $1,300 a pop.

"It's a privilege" to be invited, Bouchard said. "They want us so badly they're going to pay for the expenses. We're a volunteer orchestra. To do that, and only pay the airline ticket, it's an honor."

This trip is happening because of Lerner's connection to a player he conducted at Florida State University. Kai Fu, a cellist and "a very good musician," now handles international outreach at Oberlin College in Ohio, and places American orchestras in China.

"Why don't you bring your orchestra?" Kai asked Lerner.

"My orchestra is a community orchestra," Lerner replied.

"So?" Kai responded.

"We were amazed and scared and just blown away, and said 'yes,'" Bouchard said. "A week later, we asked ourselves 'what are we doing?'

"From a leadership position, it was a big job" to coordinate logistics, and the work continues, Bouchard said. A contract from the Chinese government arrived written in Chinese, requiring interpretation. "We had to be sure what we were signing," Bouchard said. Airline tickets, passports, packing for wide-ranging weather, medical shots and releases, people with special food needs, who'll room with whom … it's plenty of work to prepare 93 people, about 70 of them performers with instruments, for an 11-day, seven-concert trip to China.

"To get 70 going is fantastic, and it shows they love what they do," said Ron Melzer, SASO's volunteer public relations man and SaddleBrooke resident.

"One of our concerns was the players would be hesitant," Bouchard said. The SASO board surveyed its ranks, and many jumped aboard.

Punch Howarth, a SASO musician and SaddleBrooke resident who is not making this trip, reports China is in "the midst of an explosion of interest in classical music, and in particular American composers."

"They want an orchestra playing a sort of Western New Year's concert," Lerner said, so he's planning an opening half of American music, to include Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland, Grofe and Sousa. The program's second half features Verdi and Strauss, and the work of Chinese composers as well.

"We want to show we can live together, with different cultures, different systems of music," Lerner said.

At least once, Chinese singers are joining SASO on stage. "We have no idea who they are or how they sing," Lerner said. They'll have a half-hour rehearsal beforehand. In total, "it's a long program, almost two hours."

SASO is dedicating six rehearsals to the China trip. They're culminated by one local performance, on Wednesday, Dec. 23, at the DesertView Performing Arts Center in SaddleBrooke. The orchestra leaves America on Dec. 26, lands at midnight in Shanghai, and plays later that day in Dalian. Stops on the tour are Shenzhen, Dongguang and "one of the five best auditoriums in China," Shantou and Beijing. On one night, in a different theater in the same city, the London Philharmonic is performing. "That's our competition," Lerner said.

The contingent returns Jan. 6.

Lerner, who travels between Tucson and another job in Houston, tallied some of his 83,000 air miles since August on a November trip to China, checking out hotels, venues and travel. "The restaurants are amazing," Lerner said. In China, restaurants are "absolutely getting more modern than us." The shopping is "great," the sights many, the accommodations excellent, the free time … limited.

"I love to travel," Bouchard said. "They're so much older than us, as a culture."

Bouchard has been with SASO for 12 years. Some of the 30-year-old orchestra's original members — Linda Zello McCotter, Donna Bockius-Kreutz, Marie Hill, Anita Hansen, Paula Klein, Kay Trondsen and Barbara Chinworth — are making this journey.

This trip to China is "a terrific opportunity," for the orchestra and its players alike, Bouchard said.

"And it brings us up a level," she continued. "I want to practice more, and fulfill that."

China concert preview Dec. 23 in SaddleBrooke

The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra presents its China tour concert:

Wednesday, Dec. 23

7 :30 p.m.

DesertView Performing Arts Center, SaddleBrooke

Tickets, $20 advance, $22 at the door.

Call Pat Beeks, 825-5318; the Tucson Symphony, 323-7266; or go to sasomusic.org.

SASO's contingent to China

Violin I — Rebekah Butler, Larry Lang, Steve McClain, Lillian Meriwether, Diane Ransdell, Erika Roush, Dee Schroer, Marybeth Schwab, Claire Tatman.

Violin II — Debbie Bouchard, Kristen Briggs, Ellen Caldwell, Louise Pickering, Kate Riley, Michael Schumacher, Clair Secomb, Tim Secomb, Linda Zello McCotter.

Viola — Edina Hall, Marie Hill, Donna Bockius Kreutz, Rebecca McKee, Virginia Moyer, Sarah Tatman, Richard White.

Cello — Kai Asher, Linda Koshel, Anita Hansen, Robert Hutson, Paula Klein, Ben Nead, Helena Pedersen.

Bass — Barbara Chinworth, Noel DaSalla, Jeffrey Holsen, David Jaffrey.

Flute/piccolo — Fran Moskovitz, Sandra Schwoebel, Christopher Smith.

Oboe — Cindy Behmer, Sherry Jameson, Kay Trondsen.

Clarinet — Andrew Braden, Paul Scott.

Bassoon — Joe Deraad, Douglas Hopp, Tammy Smith.

Horn — Janelle Borg, Rose French, Loren Mayhew, Gary Nichol.

Trumpet — Chuck Hicks, Michael Kiefer, Betty Scott.

Trombone — Dennis Foster, Abby Puzzo, Joseph Turner.

Tuba — Paul May.

Timpani — Keith Pawlak.

Percussion — Ben De Gain, Devin Lyon, Carola Murphy, Dan Samson.

Harp — Rebecca Foreman.

Piano — Gina McClancy.

Piano solo — Tannis Gibson.

Soprano solo — Christi Amonson.

Cello solo — Kai Fu.

Composer — Huang Ruo.

Music director — Linus Lerner.

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