Going Strong

Arizona Friends Of Chamber Music Celebrate 50 Years Of Stellar Performances

By Margaret Regan

THE OPENING concert of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music's 50th anniversary season is typical in many ways.

The highly ranked Lafayette String Quartet of Vancouver next Tuesday will play a program of works by Barber, Shostakovich and Schubert, including the Schubert String Quartet in G major, which Friends president Jean-Paul Bierny calls a "beautiful work, the kind without which you would die." And typical again for a Friends concert, the Lafayette players, all artists in residence at the University of Victoria School of Music, will use prized instruments. Their two violins, viola and cello are all Amati instruments, crafted 300 years ago by the teacher of Stradivarius.

Review But there are a few details about the Lafayette that would distinguish their concert from, say, one given in the early years of the Friends' half-century. All four musicians are women, and the cello player, Pamela Highbaugh, will bring her 20-month-old baby along when she comes to Tucson.

"Her mother is coming from California and she'll baby-sit," reports Charles King, longtime corresponding secretary for the Friends. In the old days of the Friends, a baby on the road would have been unthinkable. "There weren't many women musicians then," King says. "Singers were the exception. There were certainly not many in string quartets."

Much more has changed than the proliferation of women musicians in the 50 years that the Friends have been presenting chamber concerts in the Old Pueblo. For one thing, there are far more string quartets of all genders ("When I was in college there was the Budapest and the Julliard and that was about it," King says). Nowadays, the Friends have a choice of fine chamber musicians from all over North America and Europe. They've operated in the black for 20 years, they've got an enthusiastic corps of subscribers to the regular season of six concerts and they're planning their fifth chamber music festival in March. There's even money to commission new chamber works and to bring the composers to town to meet their audiences. And a few seasons back they launched a new miniseries called Piano and Friends.

Back in 1948, when the Friends organized, money was so tight, "We couldn't afford to put musicians up," remembers Irving Coretz, a former French horn player with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and an early Friends board member. "The players came in for very little money. They were outstanding musicians who were members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They played chamber music on the side. They would drive out here, give a concert in the late afternoon and right after the concert they jumped in the car and drove back."

Though Tucson had only about 65,000 people after the war, Coretz says, "The culture was pretty fantastic." The TSO had already been formed. The Saturday Morning Musical Club had for some years brought in musicians to play at the Temple of Music and Art, and with Tucson on a major rail route, the club had attracted stars of the magnitude of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

"But chamber music was the missing link. Nobody thought a town that size could support chamber music."

Still, founding members Harry Rickel, a piano instructor at the UA, and Arthur Blair, who owned a bookstore nearby, persuaded such people as Stewart Udall, later secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy Administration, and George Rosenberg, an editor of the Tucson Citizen, to join the new board. The fledgling Friends presented their first concerts in the old Tucson Women's Club downtown, a building that later fell to urban renewal.

"The board members used to set up the chairs, and provide the music stands," Coretz says. "Later we moved to the UA because we were kind of affiliated with the UA," playing first in the old Agriculture Hall, then Liberal Arts Hall and finally Crowder Hall. When Crowder Hall shut down for renovations, the Friends moved back downtown to Leo Rich Theatre. The current president, Bierny, says the Friends feel strongly that the concerts belong downtown, where they can help revitalize the city center.

When he took over 20 years ago, Bierny found the Friends still financially precarious. He organized a brainstorming session with the audience that generated the current Friends philosophy, which Bierny describes as, "Go for broke. Go for the highest quality. Keep ticket prices as low as possible so it's not an elitist society." The Friends started a list of regular contributors and nowadays get donations from more than 55 percent of their subscribers. With a sound financial base, the Friends have been able to go for stars in the chamber music circuit.

Still, it took a while for Tucson to establish itself as a great town for chamber music. "Even a decade ago," Bierny remembers, "the musicians expected a cowboy audience. They were amazed when they got here. When the Montreal Quartet came, they said they'd heard from the Emerson Quartet that there's a fantastic chamber music society way down in the desert."

Coretz agrees. He gave up his seat on the board after 40 years' service, but still faithfully attends all the concerts out of sheer love of the music. "These are super musicians. Chamber music takes a virtuoso. Every part is a solo. Everything is exposed. Chamber music is healthy and growing. It's on its way up."

The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music present the Lafayette String Quartet in concert at 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 7, at the TCC Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $14 at the door. Students with ID get in for $4. For more information, call 298-5806. TW

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