Right after World War II, two young couples were looking for a place to keep cool. Their homes had no air conditioning or swamp cooling, so they started meeting at a nice, chilled bookstore near the university, which had a lounge with comfortable chairs. They’d meet there one Thursday night every month, and listen to new 78 rpm records, and talk about politics. Eventually the group moved to a private piano studio near campus, where it was possible to have live music played by local musicians. Ambitions grew, and in 1948 a small group of enthusiasts launched a non-profit presenting organization, initially called the Arizona Friends of Music – “Arizona” to embrace a parallel series in Tempe, and a general reference to “music” to keep the options open, although chamber music immediately turned out to be the focus.
For the first two seasons, artists were imported from the “Evenings on the Roof ” series in Los Angeles (one of the first ensembles, the Alma Trio, included cellist Gabor Rejto, whose son Peter would decades later become artistic director of our Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival). Then, to maintain quality control, the local volunteer board decided to book ensembles directly, bringing to Tucson top-notch musicians from around the world. From those early years, the organization’s mission was to present first-rate performances of familiar as well as contemporary and rarely played music, at affordable ticket prices.
Concerts were initially given at the Tucson Women’s Club, then the marginally better octagonal Agricultural Hall at the University of Arizona; soon performances moved to the acoustically more desirable UA Liberal Arts Auditorium, then, in 1959, to the newly built Crowder Hall in the UA music building. When Crowder underwent renovations in 1990 the AFCM permanently relocated to the Tucson Convention Center’s Leo Rich Theater.
Through the years, almost all the work involved in presenting world-class chamber music concerts has been handled by a volunteer board of directors, the only exception being a part-time box-office manager. Despite this limitation, the organization has branched out since the early 1990s; besides a season of six or seven evening concerts featuring established ensembles, AFCM also presents the three-concert Piano & Friends series of up-and-coming musicians, and, in March, the critically acclaimed Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival.
AFCM has always showcased ensembles from around the world; even in the modest 1958–59 season, we featured a French piano trio and string quartets from Czechoslovakia and the United States. We also had a knack for catching soon-to-be-celebrated groups and soloists early in their careers—for example, we booked the Tokyo Quartet only three years after it was founded, and caught the precocious Lang Lang when he was only a teenager (and still accompanied on his travels by his father). We also developed long-term relationships with leading ensembles; the Emerson and Guarneri quartets, for example, were mainstays of the schedule for decades.
All this developed from a simple desire to get out of the summer heat.
JAMES REEL, Former President