Holiday concerts

Music Director Charles Bontrager will lead the Civic Orchestra of Tucson in its annual holiday concert this weekend.

Civic Orchestra of Tucson is performing a piece near and dear to its music director’s heart this weekend.

The volunteer orchestra, in its annual winter concert, will open with John Cheetham’s Variations on a Gregorian Hymn, a work that COT Music Director Charles Bontrager has championed even before anyone had heard it played.

Bontrager was music director of the Springfield (Missouri) Symphony Orchestra in the late 1980s when the orchestra commissioned Cheetham to compose the piece.

The orchestra’s commissioning program was designed to shine a light on composers who were either from Missouri or had Missouri connections; Cheetham was teaching music theory and composition at University of Missouri-Columbia, where he was a faculty member from 1969 to 2000.

Bontrager’s orchestra gave Cheetham very little direction beyond that the work be “reasonably accessible” for an orchestra that was a lower-tiered professional ensemble, Bontrager said.

Cheetham focused on Gregorian chants from the 13th century that were written by St. Thomas Aquinas.

But rather than focus the 15-minute work on the entire chant, Cheetham honed in on six phrases, constructing a variation for each.

Cheetham’s piece opens with three statements of the full chant — introduced by the upper woodwinds, then repeated by the cellos and bassoons before the full orchestra chimes in. Cheetham then wrote variations of six segments of the chant before returning to the main theme in the finale.

“It’s a very good piece. It’s very listenable and it’s interesting the way it is constructed,” said Bontrager, who has conducted the piece a half dozen times with orchestra since its 1988 premiere. “It’s very, very interesting and listenable. It’s just a terrific piece.”

COT, now in its 44th season, will perform the piece at two events this weekend: in Green Valley on Saturday, Dec. 7, and in Tucson on Sunday, Dec. 8. Bontrager also programmed Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’” for harp and strings and Tchaikovsky’s massive Symphony No. 5, perhaps best known for its beautiful horn solo in the second movement.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

Cathalena has covered music for the Star for the past 20 years. She's a graduate of Arizona State University has worked at Sedona Red Rock News, Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York; and USA Today.