The entertainment options in Tucson at this time of year are endless, with the gem show, the rodeo, a major golf tournament and professional soccer all drawing large crowds of locals as well as droves of tourists.
Another addition to the already crowded calendar made its debut last year, and the Tucson Desert Song Festival did so well that it has nearly doubled in size for 2014.
The nearly three-week-long festival, which begins Thursday, Jan. 30, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 16, features performances in a variety of orchestral, classical and contemporary music disciplines at eight different venues, each offering audiences a unique experience.
Think of it as a U-Like Asian Buffet for music lovers, but instead of Szechuan pork, fried chicken and green Jell-O, you have pianists, guitarists and opera stars to choose from.
"There's really something for everyone," said Jack Forsythe, the festival board's president and artistic committee chair.
While this will be the second year of festival performances, the event itself began to take shape in 2010. That's when the University of Arizona, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and other local music interests formed a nonprofit organization with the intent of pooling their time, effort and fundraising abilities to create an all-encompassing event.
"Our big objective for the festival was to get people to think of Tucson in the wintertime the same way they'd think of Santa Fe in the summer time," said Forsythe, referring to the monthlong Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival that will be celebrating its 42nd anniversary in July. "We're focused primarily on our local audience, but we also hoped to attract a large audience from outside."
Forsythe, a former Fortune 500 executive who co-founded the St. Paul, Minn., Summer Song Festival in 2002, said the hope for Desert Song was for it to become nationally known after five or six years. It's already getting to that point, he said, based on the talent that is on this year's schedule.
Among the notables are guitarist Rene Izquierdo, tenor William Burden, pianist Kevin Murphy and Grammy Award-winning soprano Christine Goerke, whom Forsythe describes as "the hottest thing around."
Getting acts such as these to come to Tucson, and around the same time, wouldn't have been possible without the collaborative efforts of everyone involved with the Tucson Desert Song Festival, Forsythe said. By bringing the decision-makers from all these groups together and aligning their performance calendars, they were able to create an event that could soon rival the Santa Fe festival, he said.
"We'd never had a meeting where all of the (region's) artistic directors sat together in one room to discuss what we're going to do for the upcoming season," Forsythe said. "We've had three of those meetings now. We've focused on (including) our existing organizations, so we didn't have to start it from scratch. The events are put into their existing subscription series, so there's built-in audiences."
All told, the Tucson Desert Song Festival features 15 performances on 11 different days (Thursday through Sunday nights, along with weekend matinees), as well as seven free master's classes and several lectures. There's also a free recital on Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the UA's Holsclaw Hall featuring winners of a K-12 songwriting competition.
The festival kicks off with a free event at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, at the UA's Crowder Hall with Paula Fan leading a discussion titled "Intimate and Fascinating Thing Called Song."