Shoals Symphony Orchestra to Perform With Two Grand Pianos at Norton Auditorium

Orchestra Celebrates 40th Anniversary Season on Campus at UNA


Mary-Stella Mangina, Arts & Entertainment Editor

This year, the Shoals Symphony Orchestra at the University of North Alabama has been flourishing. For the orchestra, this season is especially important, as it marks the group’s 40th anniversary. Sunday, November 6, it will showcase “TWO by TWO,” a performance set to spotlight a pair of full-size grand pianos in conjunction with its symphonic performers. The pianos will be front-stage at UNA’s Norton Auditorium. At 9 feet, their imposing sizes will stand out against a backdrop of around 60 focused instrumentalists. Shows that achieve feats such as this are few and far between, now more than ever.

“The show’s two-piano feature is definitely unique,” said Carleigh Pickard, a violinist working as the symphony’s ticket manager and administrative assistant. “It will be a very modern experience. We typically do not have the chance to do performances like this one, but in this case, the stars aligned, and the timing was right. We thought we would give our audience something new and different to listen to as our 40th anniversary unfolds.”

Currently, American-led symphonies struggle to effectively produce revenue. According to an article published by TIME magazine, the financial prosperity of symphony orchestras has been declining since the 1970s. Fortunately for UNA and the Shoals as a whole, the Shoals Symphony Orchestra is thriving. Recognized by the Alabama State Council of the Arts, it has consistently brought culture to the Shoals area for 33 years. Originally, it had ties to the university’s various choral programs, but today, it operates independently, continually offering Shoals communities unique opportunities to support the arts. It is a community-based, semi-professional orchestra which has worked with UNA for over a decade.

“Our partnership with UNA is beneficial because we give the university’s students an ensemble to play alongside, and that results in our ensemble being complete,” Pickard said.

For the Florence-located orchestra, the celebratory 2022-2023 season has proven and continues to be noteworthy. In August, it welcomed Grammy-winner Michael Bolton onto Norton Auditorium’s stage to join it in renditions from his “Symphony of Hits.” Bolton, renowned globally for his heartfelt ballads, sang to a sold-out audience this summer, backed by UNA’s musicians.

“It was a major event,” Pickard said of Bolton’s presence on campus. “We had a huge turnout and a really receptive crowd. [Bolton] had a lot of good things to say about the Shoals, plus working with the symphony.”

The Shoals Symphony Orchestra’s second expo in its 40th anniversary season took place at Russellville’s Rattlesnake Saloon, a popular open-air restaurant. Set apart from other local dining options by its situation in a cave, the Rattlesnake Saloon made for an interesting orchestral venue. There, the symphony orchestra put on “Symphony Under the Rock,” a presentation that included special appearances by Darol Anger and Eugene Friesen, contemporary talents from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass.

As far as spectacle goes, the orchestra’s upcoming “TWO by TWO” guarantees to match that of Bolton’s production and “Symphony Under the Rock” alike. Supported publicly by Tom and Mary White, as well as Listerhill Credit Union, the concert will feature solo pianists Yi-Min Cai and Scott Holshouser, both of whom have strong ties to UNA.

Cai was born in Shanghai, China, where she honed her piano-playing skills at a very young age. She subsequently attended the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and later placed first in the Chinese Piano Music Performance Competition. From the time of her move to the United States, Cai’s work has prevailed steadily. In the U.S., the musician studied at both the New School of Music in Philadelphia, Penn. and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, N.Y. She received a doctorate from the latter. Cai presently teaches piano at UNA and has the standing role of guest professor at the China Conservatory in Beijing.

Holshouser, another talented pianist, developed his musical proficiency in Athens, Ga. and went to Florida State University and the University of Houston in Texas. Needless to say, his dexterity is renowned throughout the American South. He has been known to teach master classes to UNA attendees. Now a practicing faculty member at UH’s Moores School of Music, Holshouser also serves as the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s principal keyboardist. He has graced the stage of Norton Auditorium before, notably in 2013, during a presentation called “Reflections of Time and Place.” Then, he played piano for George Gershwin’s famed jazz piece “Symphony in Blue.” 

Later that same season, in 2014, Cai demonstrated her piano-centric wherewithal at former UNA music director Viljar Puu Weimann’s farewell concert. It is evident that Cai and Holshouser are more than qualified to bring the concept of dueling pianos to life at UNA. The two are slated to play Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra,” Ferdinand Hérold’s overture “Zampa” and Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 2.”

“The Brahms symphony is a large piece we have been trying to exhibit for a couple of years,” Pickard said of the orchestra’s selection. “We felt this season would be a good one in which to play it, since it’s such an epic arrangement.”

When realized by two artists on separate pianos, classical music takes on a unique sound, unparalleled by other chordophones’ resulting layers and harmonies.

“Our soloists’ piano playing will overlap some, but for the most part, they will play in a back-and-forth manner. In a way, hearing the feature will be like listening to the interaction of two voices,” Pickard said.

Tickets for “TWO by TWO” are available for purchase virtually on the Shoals Symphony Orchestra’s website, in addition to in-person at its main office, at 409 N. Court St., Florence, Ala., in Suite 100. Interested parties should stay tuned for the rest of the ensemble’s season, as its members do not plan to slow their progress any time soon.