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Tucson Symphony Orchestra marks 90th anniversary with an eye to the future

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Frederic Balazs and Tucson Symphony Orchestra in 1952

Frederic Balazs led the Tucson Symphony Orchestra during it’s 25th anniversary concert in 1952. Balazs helped transform TSO from a small community group to a artistically accomplished ensemble.

Camil Van Hulse raised his baton and with a soft downward stroke of the willow stick, he coaxed the gentle opening chords of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Overture from his small group of musicians.

So penned former Arizona Daily Star writer J.C. Martin, writing under the byline of June Caldwell, in the October 1961 edition of Arizona Highways.

Little did Van Hulse and his musicians, who spent five months rehearsing before that auspicious Tucson Symphony Orchestra debut on Jan. 13, 1929, know that they were making enduring history.

The orchestra turns 90 this season — a landmark in the Southwest and a pretty remarkable feat in this day and age of shrinking private and public funding for the arts.

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Camil Van Hulse conducted the TSO’s first concert on Jan. 13, 1929, with a small group of volunteer musicians.

“It is absolutely incredible if you think about the ups and downs an organization has to go through to survive,” said TSO President and CEO Thomas J. McKinney. “Who came to Tucson 90 years ago and had the vision of putting an orchestra out here?”

That small group of volunteer musicians Van Hulse led in that first concert has grown to 75 professional musicians under the baton of Venezuelan-born, Spanish conductor José Luis Gomez, now in his second full season with the orchestra. The annual budget went from a few hundred dollars in the beginning to today’s $5 million.

The orchestra also has developed a reputation beyond Tucson. In 2003, it received the inaugural League of American Orchestras Award for Excellence in Orchestra Education and the following year was recognized with the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award in honor of its then 75th anniversary. In 2008, the orchestra, under then Conductor George Hanson, found itself on the top of Canadian Classical Music charts with its debut recording, “Andre Mathieu: Concerto No. 4” with celebrated French-Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre.

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Tucson Symphony Orchestra looks to build on its community outreach as it mark its 90th anniversary.

And now comes the big question: How does the orchestra survive the next 90 years?

The key for the TSO, which is the oldest continually operating arts organization in the Southwest, is constant reinvention, McKinney said.

And that requires thinking in terms of “how do you make yourself viable for the community or how do you continue to be a part of the fabric,” said McKinney, who is in his second year leading the orchestra and his third year with the organization.

The orchestra is in the middle of a three-year plan that places heavy emphasis on public outreach, particularly with the region’s public schools. McKinney’s predecessor created the orchestra’s TEAMTix program, which provides concert tickets to sixth- through 12th-graders as a way to introduce them to the symphony. The idea is that those young people will someday become TSO’s primary audience.

Last season, the orchestra handed out 1,081 TEAMTix tickets.

The TSO also is exploring ways to take the orchestra outside the concert hall and into the community. Much of that effort is being driven by Gomez, who took a giant leap in that direction at last year’s All-Souls Procession, when the orchestra performed a free concert in the dirt lot across from the Mercado San Agustin on West Congress Street.

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Tucson Symphony Orchestra rehearsal at the University of Arizona School of Music in 1955.

Last spring, the orchestra followed up with a free concert featuring winners of its Young Artists Competition and the Tucson Philharmonia Youth Orchestra that attracted 1,600 people, McKinney said.

“It was a lot of people who had never come to the symphony. And it was really cool to have all of these new people who were first-time concertgoers,” he said.

McKinney said the TSO set a record last year in its Classics series; more than 40 percent of the people who attended were new to the orchestra. That number was helped by the addition of video enhancements at some concerts and the popular cine concerts — concerts built around big box office films including last season’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in March and 2015’s “Pixar In Concert.”

This season, the orchestra will perform “Star Wars: A New Hope” over Thanksgiving weekend in November.

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Workers constructed a new bandshell and adjusted stage lights prior to opening night of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra at the Palo Verde High School auditorium in October 1967. The TSO outgrew its previous home at the University of Arizona auditorium and moved east to the new Palo Verde HS, twice as large as the UA auditorium. The symphony sold more than 2,000 season tickets for the 1967-68 – a record at the time.

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Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s first performance at Tucson Music Hall was led by Arthur Fiedler in 1971.

TSO Board of Trustees President Autumn van den Berg said Gomez and his focus on South American composers gets much of the credit for attracting new and diverse audiences to the symphony.

“Audiences are declining across the nation, but I think (the key is) interesting programming and really being a part of the community,” she said. “That’s one thing we are looking at in terms of the future and we are really proud of Maestro Gomez’s innovations.”

The symphony will mark its 90th anniversary by looking at its past, its present and its future. Among the season highlights is the return of Conductor Robert Bernhardt (1987-96), who will lead the orchestra in its SuperPops opener “Lights! Camera! Pops!” on Oct. 27 and 28; a guest appearance by former Principal Trumpet Conrad Jones for the Mahler Symphony No. 5 next March; and the return of TSO Young Composers/Young Artist Competition winner Nicholas Mariscal in late October to perform Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello.

McKinney said other 90th anniversary events include rooftop and living room concerts that bring the experience outside the Tucson Music Hall.

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Frederic Balazs, conductor of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, during a rehearsal at the University of Arizona Music School in 1955.

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William McGlaughlin, who conducted TSO from 1982 to 1987, went on to become a popular radio host of the WFMT program “Exploring Music.”

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Tucson Symphony conductor Bob Bernhardt in 2004.

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George Hanson came to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in 1996 and stayed at the helm until 2015, the longest term for a TSO conductor.

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Tucson Symphony Orchestra maestro José Luis Gomez is in his second full season with the orchestra. TSO will be celebrating its 90th anniversary in January.

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Gregory Millar leads the Tucson Symphony Orchestra rehearsing for its first concert in the new Music Hall on Nov. 6, 1971. Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops was the guest conductor for the first concert in the new performance venue.

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