The first notes of the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival chimed at cruising altitude, on a flight from Tucson to Chicago.

On that flight, in 1988, Jean-Paul Bierny, president of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, recognized Peter Rejto as the UA cello professor he had seen perform recently. He introduced himself and sat down.

"Somebody tapped my shoulder and said, 'I'd love to talk to you,'" Rejto said in an email from his home in Sydney, Australia. "We talked through the whole flight, and during the course of our conversation I very casually, without any planning or thought, said, 'Oh, Tucson has such a wonderful climate in the winter, wouldn't it be wonderful if Tucson had some sort of chamber music festival.' "

That idea would not reach its crescendo until the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music sponsored the first Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival in 1994.

Today, the festival launches its 20th season. With Rejto still the artistic director, it has not missed a beat.

"It is such a typically Tucson atmosphere," Bierny said of the festival. "It's completely warm and relaxed, but there is great excitement because everybody knows something extraordinary happens."

Each year, the festival brings some of the world's most talented chamber musicians to Tucson for a week that not only celebrates the classics, but also incorporates contemporary music and premieres new compositions. This year, the festival premieres commissioned works from Sylvie Bodorova and Carl Vine. Both have contributed commissioned pieces before.

The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music does things differently than the rest of the chamber music community. The group has commissioned 52 works, every one sponsored by the audience.

"In the same way that chamber musicians interact with each other and look at each other when they play, that is the way Tucson's chamber music society is with its audience," said Margaret Lioi, CEO of Chamber Music America, a national organization of ensemble music professionals.

"They have brought their audiences into a scope of participation and have shown them the gift of having a living composer write pieces, and then you are the first ones to hear it. And it's not just that they've done one or two. This is what sets Tucson apart."

sort of a hippie culture

The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music was founded 65 years ago.

"First, they were in some small room and started hiring musicians coming by train from Los Angeles," said Bierny, the group's outgoing president. "They had some really good musicians from the start."

That was in 1948, and from there, the group moved to the University of Arizona campus and eventually back downtown. Because chamber music is intimate - many chamber groups start in someone's living room or kitchen, Lioi said - Tucson still fits in.

"The climate at this time of year makes it very attractive for musicians to leave climates that may leave something to be desired," Bierny said.

The weeklong festival is relatively short as chamber music festivals go, making it doable even for the in-demand musicians with commitments elsewhere.

Colin Carr, an English cellist, performs all over the world. For him, Tucson ranks ranks up there with other international chamber music cities. Carr played at the first Tucson festival 20 years ago and has returned multiple times. He'll perform at this year's festival.

"Of course the climate of Tucson appeals to me, but it also has a great community of artists," Carr said by telephone from New York, where he commutes from England to teach cello courses at Stonybrook University. "It feels like such a vibrant and creative community to me. It feels, somehow, very tolerant. There's almost a sort of hippie culture in Tucson which I like very much."

Although the Tucson audience maintains an open mind, it also expects high-caliber art.

"I have seen groups come into this festival with cavalier attitudes," cello professor Rejto said. "They might be thinking, 'We are in a small town. We don't have to try very hard.' But when they are met with such a warm audience after that first concert, there is this motivating and powerful force there that musicians feed off of. When they sense it, they really want to play well."

Chamber music thrives on this connection between musicians and audiences, and the music itself can take on the qualities of its surroundings.

"There are people who come here from different places and bring their instruments and their national heritage of music with them," said Lioi, of Chamber Music America. "Musicians are so creative. They hear something and want to incorporate it into what they are doing."

This happened at the 2008 festival, when Ross Edwards composed "Tucson Mantras" for percussion quartet, string quartet, and the didgeridoo, an indigenous Australian wind instrument. Here, even trained ears can become students again.

youth concert

A designated youth concert during the festival invites students from around Tucson to experience this musical intimacy.

For the past several years, students from the Tohono O'odham school Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School have attended.

"We don't care if these kids are music students," said Bierny, president of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. "A lot of them have never heard any type of classical music. Almost universally, they love it. It's a new world that they discover."

Tucson Junior Strings is one of the youth organizations connected with the festival. Because chamber music is the foundation at Tucson Junior Strings, students who attend the festival gain a better understanding of their art.

"People get exposed to music and it brings out some of the best emotions in the world," Dennis Bourret, the director of Tucson Junior Strings, said. "It's one of the best personality developers you could imagine."

Even for those who "can't read a note," like Bierny, chamber music is rich.

"I will never forget this little girl who came up to me at the end of a performance and said, 'This is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard in my entire life,'" Bierny said. "She's never going to forget that. Even if she doesn't become a season ticket holder, she will never forget this, and it will be an important part of her growing up."

If you go

• What: 20th annual Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival.

• When: 3 p.m. today through next Sunday. Concerts are held at 3 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. A special youth concert will be at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

• Where: Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave.

• Tickets: $30; $10 students; $130 five-concert festival pass; $280 five concerts and the March 23 gala dinner. Available in advance at or by calling 577-3769.

• Artists: Shanghai Quartet; violinists Ani Kavafian, Helena Baillie and Axel Strauss; violists Cynthia Phelps and Baillie; cellists Colin Carr and Sergey Antonov; pianists Bernadette Harvey and Xak Bjerken; clarinetist Bil Jackson; and soprano Jennifer Foster.

Festival facts

• Old friends: Three festival musicians on this year's roster - Ani Kavafian, Cynthia Phelps and Colin Carr - were among the musicians performing at the inaugural festival 20 years ago.

• New works: The Friends will premiere two new works this week, bringing to 52 the number of audience-supported commissions since the Friends began its commissioning program in 1995. Sylvie Bodorova's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings will be premiered next Friday, and the premiere of Carl Vine's Piano Quintet will close the festival March 24.

We saw them when

Arizona Friends of Chamber Music has the uncanny ability to present unknown artists who have gone on to become known worldwide.Here's some shining examples:

• Chinese pianist Lang Lang was still in his teens and feeling his way when he performed with the Piano & Friends series in fall 2000. Today, he is acclaimed as one of the world's greatest pianists.

• Cellist Alisa Weilerstein was already a veteran soloist at 19 when she played Piano & Friends in November 2001. Her promising career was already foretold in the accolades she brought to the Leo Rich stage, including performing with some of America's top orchestras, and winning the Avery Fisher Career Grant and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in the months before she arrived. Her busy career includes touring with Academy of St. Martin In the Fields, which played a UApresents show early this month.

• Violinist Joseph Lin played his first Friends recital as a newly minted Harvard grad in early 2003. The audience and organization were so enamored with him that they invited him back for the 2005 festival and pretty much every festival since. In 2011, Lin joined the storied Juilliard String Quartet as its first violinist.

Johanna Willett is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star.