The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra plans to officially begin its 66th season with sounds and sights from railroad history.

The schedule that follows encompasses music from sources you’d expect — Mozart, Beethoven, Handel — and sources not instantly associated with classical composition, such as Frank Sinatra and Sting.

Before all that gets started, RSO performs a free concert Saturday at 7 p.m. in downtown Roanoke’s Elmwood Park. Called Symphony Under the Stars, the free event has in a few short years become a summer tradition for RSO.

“Last year we had in excess of 4,000-something people come to the program,” said RSO music director and conductor David Stewart Wiley. “We hope that people will come out and set an even bigger record of attendance.”

This year Symphony Under the Stars doubles as the headlining performance for the first ever Star City Arts Festival, which starts at 3:30 p.m. in Elmwood Park and features exhibits, skits, dances, songs and demos from participating artists and arts nonprofits.

“As part of this wonderful arts festival, people who haven’t been to the symphony have an opportunity to hear and see what we do, in an informal, engaging situation,” Wiley said. “It’s truly a concert for everyone.” The repertoire in Saturday’s concert includes a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony and lighter fare like the disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven.”

RSO’s opening night Masterworks concert, which takes place Sept. 28 at the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre in Roanoke, has a special focus. “We are one of three orchestras to commission a work by Grammy Award-winning composer Michael Dougherty,” Wiley said. “It is a piece that is performed in collaboration with visual images from the O. Winston Link Museum, projected above the stage while the full symphony orchestra plays. This program, as I put it together, is centered around Virginia’s Blue Ridge rail heritage, and its expression in music.”

Three works on the opening night program have rail connections. Dougherty’s work is called “Night Owl,” a reference to the late photographer O. Winston Link, whose initials spell out “O.W.L.” and who shot most of his nostalgic photographs of Norfolk & Western steam locomotives at night.

The program also includes American composer Robert Smith’s “Great Locomotive Chase,” which musically tells a story of a Civil War battle that involved a runaway train, and George Gershwin’s jazzy “Rhapsody in Blue,” inspired by the sounds of a train ride. Russian-born American pianist Yuliya Gorenman will join RSO for the “Rhapsody” performance.

Further concerts in the Masterworks series will include February 2020 and May 2020 shows marking Beethoven’s 250th birthday and performances in November and in March 2020 built on the music of Mozart. Furthermore, RSO’s Destination Series, played in smaller venues throughout the Roanoke Valley, will open Oct. 29 with a concert placing Mozart’s music side by side with a symphony by Mozart’s mentor, Antonio Salieri. The 1984 film “Amadeus” popularized the idea that Salieri and Mozart were murderously bitter rivals, though this fictional acrimony comes largely from the imagination of playwrights, not documented facts.

RSO’s pops series opens with swing. “Our opening pops, ‘Sinatra and Friends,’ features a real star, Steve Lippia. This is his debut with us,” Wiley said. Lippia, whose crooning in video recordings uncannily evokes Old Blue Eyes, sings regular gigs in Los Angeles and Atlantic City. In the Oct. 18 show, “We feature all of the greatest hits.”

The pops series concludes in April 2020 with “Every Breath You Take,” orchestra renditions of songs by Sting, both solo and with his legendary band, The Police.

RSO’s various season ticket packages range from $96 to $558. Tickets for single performances are also available. For more information call 343-9127 or visit

Star City Playhouse schedule change

Star City Playhouse at 107 S. Pollard St. in Vinton has rescheduled the final week of its double bill performances of the one act plays “The Confederates,” an early 20th century American romantic comedy from female writing duo Pauline Phelps and Marion Short, and “The Boor,” a comedy from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Performances in the revised schedule take place Friday, Aug. 30 and Sept. 13, 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 31-Sept. 1 and Sept. 14-15, 2 p.m. Tickets are $12, with a discounted rate of $8 for senior citizens and students. For more information, call 366-1446.

Mike Allen writes the Arts & Extras column for The Roanoke Times. The beat he covers includes visual art, classical music, opera, theater, dance, literature, museums and other arts and cultural nonprofits, and things even more eclectic.

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