The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra closed its 35th season with arguably the most challenging piece of music it has ever performed.

Before its largest-ever audience — just shy of 600 — the orchestra mounted Beethoven’s seminal Ninth Symphony “The Choral.” Before last weekend, no one in the orchestra, including Conductor Linus Lerner, had ever performed it.

SASO assembled a 50-voice chorus, brought in four guest vocalists from Mexico and had as many as 70 instrumentalists on stage. By the “Ode to Joy” chorus in the fourth movement, they were down a cellist when Helena Pedersen quietly snuck off stage and joined the choir. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too: Pedersen, an alto, bopped and swayed as she sang the German text of the Friedrich Schiller poem. Every once in a while, she looked up and squeezed her eyes. From the audience, it looked like she was fulfilling a dream.

Many of the musicians on the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church stage Sunday afternoon likely felt the same way. Musicians in a volunteer, community orchestra don’t get many — if any — chances to perform the Ninth. It’s a beast of a work; it’s Beethoven, after all, so it’s complex and epic in every way. But from the audience Sunday the notes and nuances flowed like someone had hit play on a recording.

In a terrifically balanced pace, Lerner brought out the bravado and spine-tingling triumph of the opening chords of the gigantic first movement — the thumping of the timpani, the sharply played strings interspersed with the winds — then carried through as that glorious theme repeated itself throughout the first and second movements. Strings, played pizzicato at times, reverberated in the slower third movement, which also shined a spotlight on Sherry Jameson's  crystalline oboe.

The chorus and soloists came onstage for the fourth movement, filling in nearly every empty spot on St. Andrew’s stage. The soloists, winners of Lerner’s 2013 Oaxaca Opera Festival, were breathtaking, especially Gabriel Navarro’s richly burnished baritone and Eloisa Molina’s stunning soprano.

In addition to the Ninth, SASO shined on Shostakovich’s delightful “Festive Overture” opening the concert, and joined guest guitarist Roberto Capocchi for a spirited performance of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Capocchi had the bulk of the notes for the piece and showed off solid classical guitar chops in a passionate, intense performance.

Nearly 600 people filled nearly every seat at St. Andrew’s Sunday in what organizers said is likely SASO’s biggest audience ever. The concert repeats at Pima Community College tonight.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642.