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A coffee with Peter Bay, as Austin Symphony Orchestra centennial celebrations begin

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Anniversaries are not new for Peter Bay. Like most in charge of selecting music for a symphony orchestras, the conductor has long keyed off composer birthdays to create his programs for the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

So how about the centennial anniversary of ASO's founding? Though the celebrations won't begin in earnest until next spring, Bay's been thinking about centennials for a while. Why not celebrate an orchestra's centennial with musical centennials and bicentennials?

And that part of the celebrating starts this weekend as ASO plays its first concert of the season. Composers on the program? German romanticist Robert Schumann, whose bicentennial is this year, and American composer William Schuman , whose centennial is this year. Guest artist pianist André Watts will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.

Over a chai latte at a downtown Starbucks, Bay is eager to talk about the upcoming season. He's just come from dropping off his 2-year-old son, Colin, at day care. "He was conducting in the car," says Bay, beaming. "The first Fourth of July concert we took him to last summer he started waving his arms around obviously imitating what he saw me doing. Now, he does it whenever he hears music."

Perhaps little Colin will enjoy marking the beats through music by Franz Liszt and Gian Carlo Menotti, two other composers with centennials this season. Then there's the November concert Bay has planned for Colin to try his hand(s) on: a program of music by Mexican composers in celebration of the centennial of Mexico's revolution and bicentennial of Mexico's independence. And wait, there's one more centennial in there. On the Mexico program is a piece by Blas Galindo, who is — guess what? — another composer with a centennial this year.

An informal group calling itself the Austin Symphony Society gave its first public concert April 25, 1911, with a rather motley lineup of instruments and a hodge-podge of a program. It would be several decades before the group was anything more than an unofficial organization of people who got together to play music for themselves. And it wasn't until 1948 that a professional music director/conductor was hired and regular concert series were offered.

Bay is the orchestra's eighth music director/conductor, a position he's held since 1997.

And though the music group has come a long way since its hobbyist beginnings a century ago, Austin Symphony Orchestra is still not a full-time endeavor for its musicians, who are part-time contractors. But with the recession sending damaging shockwaves to even the nation's most esteemed orchestras (the New York Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony, for example, are among those that face crippling debt) Bay says Austin can still be thankful.

"I think we should just be happy to have an orchestra when so many around the country are troubled right now," he says.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

André Watts and the Austin Symphony Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Long Center, 701 Riverside Drive

Cost: $19-$8

Information: www.austinsymphony.org