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Three years in and Song Festival poised to become destination
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Three years in and Song Festival poised to become destination

As it opens its third season this weekend, the Tucson Desert Song Festival is positioned to become a destination cultural event, following in the footsteps of the Santa Fe Opera.

Over three weekends, seven Tucson arts organizations will team up with two national organizations and 21 guest artists to perform everything from art song recitals to major choral masterworks to a fully staged opera.

The festival’s evolution is two years ahead of the schedule imagined by festival founder and champion Jack Forsythe, who formed the nonprofit Tucson Desert Song Festival in 2010 and debuted the inaugural festival in 2013.

“Our idea was that every year we would get better and better until we get to world class where we’re (asking), ‘OK, is anybody doing anything better?’,” he said. “We are right there now and it’s year three. Quality wise, we’re there.”

From the first event on, the festival has hosted singers and artists whose resumes included singing with the New York Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera and with renown orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.

Last year, the festival engaged Kevin Murphy, director of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute vocal program, as artistic consultant. His connections have landed the festival artists destined for national and international stages. Past artists include soprano Christine Goerke, a rising star whose career has taken flight internationally; soprano Jennifer Jason Cano, a regular with the New York Metropolitan Opera; and bass Morris Robinson, a football player turned singer who makes regular appearances with the Chicago Symphony and Chicago Lyric Opera.

But this year is a turning point, Forsythe said. The New York Song Festival, one of the country’s pre-eminent events, is presenting a recital of Spanish songs with soprano Corinne Winters and its co-founder and artistic director Steven Blier (Jan. 24).

And Arizona Opera makes its festival debut with Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” (Jan. 31 and Feb. 1).

“It’s still very early but so far it’s working,” Murphy said. “The level of talent and the kind of programming they’ve done is really high level.”

The Tucson festival is unique in that a number of local organizations have incorporated it into their regular seasons. Participating groups include Tucson Chamber Artists, Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, University of Arizona School of Music and the Tucson Guitar Society.

“It’s a little tricky to get everybody on the same page, but I think they are doing it,” Murphy said. “And they seem to be enjoying it. Now that we have Arizona Opera … it’s really exciting having all of these groups working together.”

George Hanson, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s music director, has been involved in the festival from its inception and says that it has made tremendous progress. “The goal has always been to make this a destination festival, where people would travel to Tucson. In doing so it would have a very positive impact on Tucson’s image and really to its economy, as well.”

Anthony Roberts, director of Chicago-based Steans Music Institute, said the festival has succeeded at attracting ”the very best artists there are,” which has set the festival “on the right track” to becoming an event that attracts audiences outside of Tucson.

“On behalf of Ravinia, we are happy to help out with that because they are doing such great things for the sake of art songs,” Roberts added.

Murphy said it helps that Tucson is hosting the festival in February, when artists are happy to trade in the frigid winter climes of New York and Chicago for a desert respite.

“Musicians and artists love making music in beautiful places. Tucson is such a great place to go in the winter and it really makes a difference,” he said. “When you’re making music in a beautiful place, everything gets better.”

“I think it has great potential,” added Arizona Opera Executive Director Ryan Taylor. “If you think about Santa Fe being the place to go for terrific art and culture in the summer, this is sort of the inverse of that from a calendar standpoint. Where else is there to be this time of year when it’s 8 degrees in New York?”

This year’s festival opens Friday with the TSO performing Poulenc’s “Gloria” and the final trio from Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” with sopranos Katie van Kooten and Hye Jung Lee and mezzo Angela Brower, an Arizona native who sings with the Bavarian State Opera.

It closes the weekend of Jan. 31 with Arizona Opera’s “Eugene Onegin” and the TSO performing Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” featuring mezzo Tamara Mumford and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey.

Other highlights include Tucson Chamber Artists performing the chamber version of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” (Jan. 23-25); Arizona Friends of Chamber Music hosting Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute on Tour featuring Murphy on piano accompanying soprano Simone Osborne, mezzo Catherine Martin and tenor Michael Brandenburg performing works by Fauré, Mahler, Duparc, Liszt, Britten, Copland and Joseph Marx; and UA Presents hosting internationally-acclaimed mezzo Susan Graham in a recital Jan. 29.

The TSO’s Hanson envisions the Tucson Desert Song Festival evolving to become “an integral part of Tucson’s life and its economy.”

“It will be one of the things that people will say, “Oh yeah, Tucson … it has this wonderful song festival’,” he said. “I think it has the potential to be moving in the direction of Spoleto (Festival USA) or Santa Fe in terms of destination musical experiences.”

Added Arizona Opera’s Taylor, “The state on a national and global level sort of battles with what it is we are going to be known for. In recent years we‘ve been known for some controversial and frankly weird things.

“I would rather we be known for being a cultural and diverse community.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642.

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