The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra introduced its new chorus Friday night before about 175 people not used to seeing the volunteer orchestra performing in downtown Tucson.
Friday’s concert at St. Augustine Cathedral was the first time in years that the ensemble had played a show south of River Road.
It was the second of four concerts this weekend to show off the new chorus and to celebrate a South Korean violinist soloing with the group.
SASO officially introduced its chorus to an audience in Green Valley on Thursday. The Tucson intro came with Friday's concert at St. Augustine Cathedral.
Conductor Linus Lerner formed the chorus — 24 mixed adult voices — specifically for this concert, which was anchored by John Rutter’s 2003 choral work “Mass of the Children.” But expect to see Lerner, who has led SASO since the 2008-09 season, keep them busy in the years to come. The chorus, joined by a dozen superb vocalists from Oaxaca, Mexico, and a contingent of talented singers from the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus, showed that they have the chops to take on big works and make them sound pretty terrific.
Throughout Friday’s performance, the chorus performed with the polish of a group that had been together for years, not weeks. They were arguably at their best when they joined the Boys Chorus for the Gloria and created a wall of sound that filled the cavernous, historic church to its vaulted rafters.
Lerner brought in fellow Brazilian soprano Débora Faustino and University of Arizona doctoral student, baritone Seth Kershisnik, to sing the solo roles. Kershisnik had a wonderful lyricism to his commanding tone while Faustino had a strong, soaring soprano that rang clearest at the higher registers. When she sang the English passages during the Finale, Faustino’s voice lost some of its strength.
Friday’s concert was dedicated to the memory of SASO violinist Patte Lazarus, who lost her 10-year battle with cancer last month. Longtime SASO violist and composer-in-residence Richard White penned a short, moving work in her honor. “For Patte — A Simple Song” opened with heavenly strains from the harp complemented by the deep voices of the cello, violo and bass. When the strings, winds and brass joined in, the piece took on a cinematic breadth that was equal parts sobering and life-affirming. The minutes-long piece ends with comforting church chimes interspersed with near silent dings from the xylophone.
All of that could easily have been enough to fill the program, but Lerner has demonstrated during his tenure that he’s a conductor who likes to challenge his ensemble to heights that often exceed their professional brethren. So he added in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, one of the best-known violin concertos and also largely regarded as one of the most technically challenging.
Just how big a deal is the Concerto in D? The last time we heard it performed with an orchestra in Tucson was in 2005 when we got a twofer; Joshua Bell played it with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in early January 2005 and a couple weeks later, Chinese violinist Cho-Liang Lin played it with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in a UApresents show.
Lerner brought in Korean violinist Edwin E. Soo Kim, a Sony recording artist who was trained in Vienna and performs with marquee orchestras around the globe including with the Prague Chamber Orchestra, Sinfonie Orchester Berlin and several orchestras in his native South Korea.
Kim plays with a fiery passion, his fingers fluttering on the fret with lightening speed as he pounced on the notes with undivided attention. The orchestra, which was having an exceptional night, kept pace with Kim’s energy and passion. But Lerner never let the overall sense of urgency in Kim’s playing become too urgent and muddy up the water. In the end, the piece rang true of Tchaikovsky's challenges, with brillian lyricism and long, meandering muses during Kim's wonderfully played solo turns.
SASO, the SASO Chorus, the guest vocalists and the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus will perform the concert at 7:30 p.m. today at DesertView Performing Arts Center, 39900 S. Clubhouse Drive in SaddleBrooke; and at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 7575 N. Paseo del Norte in Oro Valley. Tickets are $21 in advance, $23 at the door for SaddleBrook, $20 in advance or at the door for Oro Valley. Details: Call 308-6226.