This article appeared in the Tucson Daily Star on October 18, 2023
by Cathalena E. Burch
Tucson cellist Peter Rejto threw out the idea of a winter chamber music festival as a way to make conversation with the man who sat near him on a Chicago-bound plane.
From the start, he could see Jean-Paul Bierny’s wheels turning.
Six months later, Bierny, president of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, and Rejto, who was newly hired to teach at the University of Arizona School of Music back in 1988, were planning the inaugural Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival.
“When Jean-Paul decides something, it happens. That’s what kind of guy he was, a force of nature. Unstoppable,” Rejto said last week, days after news that Bierny died on Oct. 3 started making its way onto social media.
“He put so much energy and so much heart into this. And it was such a joy for him and for me,” Rejto said of the Festival, which celebrates its 30th season in March. “It was such a joy in his life.“
Bierny, who served as the chamber group’s board president for 35 years before stepping down in 2013, died at home from complications of back surgery, according to Chris Tanz, his wife of 44 years. Bierny was 85.
Bierny, who was born and raised in Belgium, had always been interested in music, Rejto said. He didn’t play an instrument, but he was enamored with chamber music after attending the Queen Elisabeth Competition for aspiring musicians held in Brussels.
He earned his medical degree in Belgium before spending three years practicing in Africa and came to Tucson in the early 1970s after studying radiology in Syracuse. Bierny quickly discovered Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and became a regular in the audience and volunteering with the group before being named its president in 1977.
In 1994, he introduced the Piano and Friends series and the Winter Chamber Music Festival, created by Bierny and Rejto, who continues to serve as the festival’s artistic director. Three years later, he launched the Friends commissioning program; to date, the organization has commissioned nearly 80 new works from well-known composers including Pierre Jalbert, Jennifer Higdon, Lera Auerbach, Ellen Zwilich, Richard Danielpour, Joan Tower and Stephen Paulus.
Bierny and the commissioning program garnered national recognition in 2016 when he received Chamber Music America’s prestigious Acclaim Award, given to people and organizations that have made “a significant cultural impact” on the region and community.
At the time, Bierny credited the Friends board and the patrons who sponsored the commissions for the award. But violinist Joseph Lin, who was part of the festival musicians for several years and maintained a friendship with Bierny until his death, said Bierny’s passion for the music and musicians was behind much of the organization’s success.
“It was about music but it was so much more than music,” said Lin, who teaches at Juilliard. “I think that the wonderful music making that was going on and the spirit and kind of enthusiasm and thirst for all of that music making was embodied in Jean-Paul more than anybody else. You would stare out from the stage and sense how much he was soaking it all in and delighted in every moment.”
“Even after he stepped down, he was at virtually every concert that we’ve had and just loved everything that we were doing,” said Alan Hershowitz, who was named the organization’s president in August.
Hershowitz said Arizona Friends of Chamber Music is dedicating this season to Bierny and will honor him at the festival in March.
Tanz said she also is planning a memorial event with the couple’s son, Philippe, a doctor in New Zealand, and his daughter Nevenka from a previous marriage.
Bierny and Tanz met through mutual friends when Tanz was teaching psycho linguistics at the UA and Bierny was working at Radiology Limited. The couple had similar immigrant backstories: Bierny immigrated to the United States as an adult while Tanz came from Poland by way of France when she was 7 after her family fled the Holocaust.
Tanz said one of Bierny’s joys was hosting the musicians for after-concert dinners at the couple’s midtown home, where her husband would make chili.
“He made hundreds of gallons of chili that fed the musicians and the audience,” she said. “He loved getting to know the musicians.”
“I miss him a lot,” she said last week as she showed off photos of her husband with musicians including the pianist Lang Lang, who played the Friends piano series when he was 16. “I’m overwhelmed that he’s gone.”
But Tanz said her husband’s legacy will live on through Arizona Friends of Chamber Music.
“Arizona Friends has become a part of life in Tucson and I think it will continue,” she said.
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Nevenka, a software engineer, Bierny is survived by a second daughter, Vivianne Peckham, a photojournalist; and two grandchildren.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Starburch