José Luis Gomez has never been to the Swiss Alps, but he’s seen them from afar.
The closest he’s gotten was seeing the Alps as they spill into Italy, where he calls home. And he’s viewed their majesty from thousands of feet above while flying around Europe to guest conduct.
Last week, as he was guest conducting in Spain with a view of a majestic seaside, Gomez was thinking about the Santa Catalinas in Tucson.
That picturesque view that he saw most vividly when he conducted a Tucson Symphony Orchestra MasterWorks concert at Catalina-Foothills High School last month will likely flash before his eyes when he takes the stage at Tucson Music Hall this weekend to conduct Strauss’s “An Alpine Symphony.”
“When Richard Strauss wrote (‘An Alpine Symphony’), he wrote it about his experiences when he went to the Alps,” Gomez said. “It gives you an idea … of how nature is bigger than anything else.”
This will be the first time the orchestra has ever performed the piece, and the first time Gomez has ever conducted it, although he had a shot a few years ago when he was asked to pinch-hit at the last minute for an ill conductor. He passed, he said, deciding that “An Alpine Symphony” was far too important and complex — it clocks it at nearly an hour — to wing it.
“It’s kind of a music director piece,” said the TSO music director. “It requires a lot of preparation not only for the orchestra but to put together all of the musicians.”
The TSO will use 125 musicians including 17 horn players — a dozen more than they have. The TSO is teaming up with the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music to bring in students to flesh out the horn section.
“It’s going to be huge,” Gomez said, sounding almost giddy as he explained how full the Music Hall stage will be on Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
There will be two harps, keyboards, a full complement of brass, winds and strings, and an overabundance of percussionists playing everything from glockenspiel to cowbells. There’s also a couple instruments some people may never have seen on a Tucson stage — the rarely -heard heckelphone (similar to an oboe) and a thunder machine and wind machine, which will recreate the sounds one might hear while hiking the Swiss Alps.
“It is a very descriptive journey of what anyone who wants to go to the Alps” will discover, Gomez said, noting that the piece was autobiographical and very personal to Strauss. “It starts with what happens at sunrise, the beginning of the day, and it shows you the aspects of nature that is specific to the Alps, not just the mountains but what surrounds the Alps. It’s not only a physical experience, it’s also a mystical experience. … He wanted to make a tribute to nature.”
And while the Music Hall stage will be crammed with musicians, don’t look too hard to find those dozen extra horn players. You will hear them, but you won’t see them; they will be placed backstage to create the dramatic fanfare in the piece’s opening.
“It’s really impressive,” Gomez said.