SELLS - Gorden Francisco moved four steps at a time until he had scooched his wheelchair beside the members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra String Quartet.

Nevermind that they were in the middle of Dvorák's String Quartet in their Saturday morning recital at the Archie Hendricks Sr. Skilled Nursing Facility here, deep in the Tohono O'odham Nation in the small enclave of Santa Rosa.

Francisco, who wore sweat pants and a baseball cap hiding his thinning gray hair, stopped his wheelchair next to violinist Carla Ecker and sat there for a moment. The other two dozen elderly residents and dozen staff members let him be as he nodded his head slowly in time to the music.

He looked almost on the verge of tears, but he never let himself go there.

This was the first time he and the majority of those attending the recital - the first of three the TSO performed on the nation Saturday - had ever seen an orchestra concert. It might also have been his first time ever hearing western classical music, organizers said.

"As far as the adults, it feels like their lives are just (about) working, and they never seek it out," said Allison Francisco, the Tohono O'odham Nation Cultural Center & Museum artist liaison. She was responsible for bringing the TSO to the nation for three concerts: the String Quartet at the senior center; a family concert with the Wind Quintet at the Baboquivari High School Performance Arts Building; and the full orchestra concert Saturday night at the Sells Recreational Center.

As far as anyone can recall, no orchestra has ever performed on the nation. Sitting in the rec center gymnasium among hundreds of empty chairs Saturday afternoon, Allison Francisco said she first proposed the TSO's visit in November 2008.

Her boss at the cultural center was immediately on board, as was the orchestra, which had been considering some type of partnership with the nation for some time.

"It's crazy that it hasn't happened before," said Shawn Campbell, who plays horn in the orchestra and as the TSO's community engagement director arranges the group's outside residencies, including annual concerts in Bisbee and Ajo. "Things happen in their right time. It's just a question of having the right people meet under the right conditions."

More than 40 people attended the family concert at the high school as the quintet performed Prokofiev's playful "Peter and the Wolf." The musicians, wearing hats depicting their characters (a bird, a duck, a cat and a wolf), explained the role their instruments played in telling the story.

There were a few families in the audience and a few adults unaccompanied by kids, including Tashmahhag Juan. She had never seen an orchestral concert, and she has never really listened to classical music, she said.

"It's a great opportunity to be here," she said after the performance, as a group of kids gathered around the musicians to ask questions and hold the instruments. "I think people should really take advantage of it."

Seven-year-old Hanz Tulabut rushed the stage to get a closer look at Jeremy Reynolds' clarinet. It was his favorite instrument, he whispered, as his mother Olga, a special education teacher for the nation, looked on.

"They enjoyed it," she said of her three kids' first experience with classical music. "Hanz was all smiling."

It is because of kids like Hanz and his brother Duane and sister Danae that Allison Francisco was determined to bring the TSO to her people. Budgetary constraints and a new emphasis on passing state-mandated tests has nudged arts out of the schools, she said, and all around her she has seen the consequences.

"I really felt bad because I saw a lot of the kids ... heading toward depression," she said.

The nation, with the help of some sponsorships, paid the orchestra about $15,000 for Saturday's performances, she said. And although it was a one-time deal, Francisco said she would love to see it become an annual event.

At the very least, she said, she hoped it would move people. "After this concert, I'm hoping it will open some minds and hearts," she said.

By the time the orchestra was tuning up for the evening concert, about 300 people - young families, teens in baggy jeans and T-shirts, older men in cowboy hats and jeans - had filled about two-thirds of the rec center gym.

"After this concert, I'm hoping it will open some minds and hearts"

Allison Francisco,

artist liaison, Tohono O'odham Nation Cultural Center & Museum

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.