2018 will be the year of Leonard Bernstein, and if the Tucson Desert Song Festival has its way, Tucson will be the epicenter of Bernstein bashes courtesy of Dorothy Dyer Vanek.

Vanek has pledged $150,000 to the 2018 Song Festival — her largest gift to a single event in the 14 years that she has championed classical music in Tucson. Her patronage, estimated to be in the seven figures, has been the financial backbone of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra classics series, True Concord Voices & Orchestra, and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra.

“The town needed something to be really known for and they are getting to be known because of the fact that we have so much music,” said Vanek, 89. “You can go to a concert practically every other week in this town.”

Vanek, who has set up sizable endowments for the orchestra, SASO and True Concord, has been an ardent financial supporter of Tucson’s classical music groups since the early 2000s.

“These groups have really brought the people out, and I am very, very pleased,” said Vanek, who studied music in college and has been an avid concertgoer since childhood. “I had hoped for that when I started this all 14, 15 years ago. It was my thought that somebody had to step in and really, really sponsor” classical music in Tucson.

Vanek’s gift to the 2018 Song Festival shows that she sees the event “as a chance to transform the cultural life here,” said George Hanson, the festival’s director and the former TSO music director.

“That’s a huge gift. We are very gratified for the fact that Dorothy has been involved in this for so long,” added Jack Forsythe, Song Festival founder and board president. “She sees how this helps more than just one of these groups. She really gets this.”

The festival, held over three weekends from late January to early February, is planning an all-Bernstein festival in 2018 to celebrate the conductor/composer’s 100th birthday. Each of the festival’s presenters — TSO, True Concord, Arizona Opera, the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music, Ballet Tucson, Tucson Guitar Society, UA Presents and, new this year, the Arizona Early Music Society — will program Bernstein works that cover opera, theater, symphony and art song.

For the first time in Tucson’s history the city’s cultural pulse will beat around a singular idea.

“Never before has there ever been this level of cooperation between two of these groups not to say eight or 10,” added Hanson, who worked with Bernstein throughout the 1980s until the legendary New York Philharmonic conductor died in 1990. “Anybody who’s not involved in the Bernstein festival will feel like they should have been.”

“It is going to unify most of the organizations that participate in the festival along one theme line,” Forsythe said. “This will have a more thematic unity and that will contribute to more national attention. This will focus on Bernstein over several platforms.”

Hanson conceived the Bernstein festival idea after a meeting last fall with True Concord Music Director Eric Holtan. At the mention of the Bernstein anniversary, Hanson “just lit up. ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got to run with it,’” Holtan recalled.

Five years ago, Vanek paid $50,000 to have composer Stephen Paulus pen “Prayers and Remembrances” for Holtan’s True Concord, formerly Tucson Chamber Artists. The professional choir and orchestra, joined by the TSO, performed the world premiere at Centennial Hall on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 and performed it again in New York City’s Lincoln Center Sept. 11. Vanek, who was at the New York concert, also contributed $100,000 to True Concord to cover the travel expenses, she said.

“Prayers and Remembrances” is the cornerstone of True Concord’s months-old critically acclaimed CD “Far in the Heavens,” a CD of Paulus works that went to No. 5 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Album chart. Holtan said Vanek picked up the $70,000 tab for the 2013 recording, which was one of Paulus’ final projects before he suffered a stroke in the summer of 2013. He died in October 2014.

Hanson said Vanek’s Song Festival gift is a starting point for what he and Forsythe believe could be a transformative event in Tucson.

“Dorothy’s gift puts us in a position to transform the cultural life of the city,” Hanson said. “We are going to bring attention to Tucson and realize Jack’s dream that Tucson become the winter version of Sante Fe. We would like to make Tucson a winter destination for cultural tourism.”

Vanek, who remembers seeing Bernstein conduct her hometown St. Louis Symphony in the late 1940s, said she shares in that goal and sees her support of the arts as an investment. She has vetted every project she has signed onto, asking a lot of questions from those seeking her support, she said. For the Song Festival project, she accompanied Hanson to a meeting in New York in September — both were there for the True Concord Lincoln Center concert — to a meeting with Bernstein Family Foundation officials to discuss the plans

“Let’s face it: I’m playing with my own money,” added the widow of Pan American Airlines executive Robert Vanek, who died in 2001. “I had set up this whole situation after my husband died. The kids don’t need any more money; they need to be able to support themselves.”

Vanek has two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, all living in Texas. She had two daughters; one of them died in 2000 and the other in 2009.

“We are giving everything in my estate to charity. This is kind of what I set up and it’s working out quite well,” she said.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642.

I cover music for the Arizona Daily Star.