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String Spectacular

The 20th Annual Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival

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As the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music commemorate its 65th season, one of its flagship programs has also withstood the test of time by encouraging passion for the arts in a small corner of the Southwest.

The 20th annual Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival, which begins Sunday, March 17, has made full use of international talent to instill that passion in concertgoers. Showcasing prestigious musicians from communities far beyond Tucson was a goal early on for AFCM president Jean-Paul Bierny and world-renowned cellist Peter Rejto, who has served as the festival's artistic director since its first year. Together, they envisioned the event as a unique take on the intimate genre of chamber music. By drawing inspiration from traditional works and also taking a chance on more contemporary music, Tucson's chamber music festival could distinguish itself from other events of its kind.

Two decades later, the legacy of that risk-taking has endured. The AFCM is known on the international circuit for actively acquiring new music, and this year will premiere two commissioned works—one from Czech composer Sylvie Bodorova, the other from Australian composer Carl Vine.

"I think what gives (the festival) distinction is the quality of the musicians that we have coming to Tucson," said AFCM board member Randy Spalding, who has attended the organization's concerts since his college years at the UA. "We're on the map, and we're a place that they enjoy coming."

Warm temperatures during these lingering winter days are unheard of in many of the musicians' home cities, increasing the motivation to travel here from as far away as Australia and China (the world-renowned Shanghai String Quartet is this year's headliner). The festival has grown to a weeklong event, allowing the musicians to settle into a more comfortable collaboration with their fellow performers as they rehearse the program.

"It's a lot of work, but it's the kind of work that's a lot of fun for us," said violinist Ani Kavafian, who has returned to the festival multiple times after performing in its very first year. Two other veterans from the first annual festival, cellist Colin Carr and violist Cynthia Phelps, will reunite onstage with Kavafian at the Tucson Convention Center's Leo Rich Theater.

"It'll be really fun this year to have (these musicians) back because they have such wonderful history with us," Spalding said.

A brief introductory commentary will precede each of the festival's six concerts, including the free, reservations-only youth concert at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, March 21. By acting as more informal counterparts to the festival's standard programming, the youth concert and open master classes on Saturday, March 23, are meant to capture the interest of students and young, aspiring musicians, hopefully prompting them to attend future AFCM events.

Kavafian, a professor in the practice of violin at the Yale University School of Music since 2006, is familiar with the delicate balance between instructing and practicing the art of chamber music. The opportunity to combine the two is rare, and rising to the occasion can leave an indelible impression on all parties involved, both on and off the stage.

"It's our duty to not just teach, but to exemplify our teaching by performing," Kavafian said. "It's always a revelation."

Kavafian is most excited to perform "Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4," a "very romantic" string sextet piece based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. One of many works selected to reflect the intimacy and richness of chamber music, the Arnold Schoenberg arrangement is the last musical work scheduled for the festival. Playing favorites, however, hardly restrains Kavafian and the other performers from finding joy in every facet of the festival experience.

"We get excited by it all," Kavafian said. "We're performing for the tried-and-true and the new audience."

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