The St. Andrew’s Bach Society was founded in 1988 by the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church , the Rev. Dr. Charles O. Ingram, who had trained as a classical pianist. The Society was conceived as a cultural gift (non-profit) to the community, featuring local professional musicians. Initially, the emphasis was on Bach and the baroque, but its scope was to be enlarged with time. On his retirement from the church in 1992, Rev. Ingram received a copper scroll from the City of Tucson commending him for instituting and supporting this wonderful addition to Tucson’s cultural scene.
James Shafer, a baritone, was appointed the Bach Society’s first director. Mr. Shafer was a graduate of the renowned University of Indiana School of Music and had major roles in the early days of Arizona Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. He was thrice President of the Tucson Musical Arts Club.
The concert series ran during the regular winter season. Some of the first concerts featured St. Andrew’s new Schoenstein pipe organ. Alan Schultz, Carl Anderson, Roy Johnson, and David Gay all gave concerts. One of the first instrumentalists was Thomas Patterson, classical guitarist, of the University of Arizona Music Department. His was a standing-room only concert. Other early performers included the Tucson Symphony’s String Quartet , with violist Ilona Gay, a member of the parish. Four concerts were planned for each musical season.
Mary Lou Williams, a Tucson artist, was commissioned by Fr. Ingram to create a color serigraph, “Bach on the Desert” (ed. 200), which has become the Society logo. Copies were sold to help support the Society. It features the composer seated at the harpsichord, surrounded by three other musicians, saguaros, and desert animals.
Following Fr. Ingram’s retirement, the series ceased to operate and no concerts were organized. Fr. Robert Williams became rector in 1993 and later appointed Christina Jarvis, who had become Choir Director at St. Andrew’s in 1995, as director of the Society. The following year, Dan Buckley of the Tucson Citizen issued a challenge to local arts groups to perform during the summer months, when there was an eager audience for classical concerts but the offerings were sparse. Christina, with the urging and assistance of Ilona Gay, Principal Violist for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, and the support of Fr. Williams, embraced the challenge. In July 1996, the Southwest String Quartet performed a trial-balloon concert at St. Andrew’s which proved extremely successful. The following summer the St. Andrew’s Bach Society Summer Concert Series was launched.
The reincarnated series was organized as a service to the community and supported itself almost entirely from ticket sales. The idea was to provide Tucson audiences with fine summer concerts at an affordable price (at one time, its concerts cost less than a movie ticket) and to give local musicians paid gigs at a time of year when incomes tend to lose weight. Christina volunteered as Artistic Director. She booked the groups, did the publicity, groomed the mailing list, produced the posters and programs, and in the early years raided Trader Joe’s for reception goodies. Hilary Madrid, House Manager and Treasurer, volunteered her time maintaining the books, managing the cash flow and padding around in stocking feet setting up folding chairs and piling goodies on plates. Volunteers sold tickets at the door and laterally provided food and labor for Bach’s Lunch, the post-concert reception’s latest incarnation. For ten years, theirs was a happy collaboration and the Society prospered.
With the intimate space and excellent acoustics of St. Andrew’s, the Bach Society has been fortunate over the years to attract the best local musicians: players from the TSO, UA and Pima Community College faculty, and members of various arts organizations, performing musical styles from jazz to early music. Quality has been a series hallmark. The organization was blessed by support from the local media and rarely failed to get good coverage of series concerts. The loyal audience and performers suffered through heat that stubbornly refused to yield to the gerbils running the air conditioner, overcrowded conditions for popular programs (we sometimes had people sitting on the organ bench in the choir loft), rainstorms so severe that people had to wade through flooded streets, and thunder that threatened to drown out the players. Aside from one player from Phoenix who (to the consternation of the rest of the quintet) walked in 15 minutes before the concert, no performer came close to derailing a performance. It was all good.
In 2007, Fr. Bob Williams retired from St. Andrew’s. Ms. Jarvis felt that after ten years under her direction the time was right for the series to move to a new level under fresh leadership, so she prevailed upon Dr. Lindabeth Binkley , principal oboist for the TSO, to take on the role of Artistic Director. Dr. Binkley had performed on the series several times and was highly experienced at organizing concerts for her fellow players, plus she’s an all-round wonderful human being. It was the perfect fit, and as hoped for, the series has taken a quantum leap in budget and audience, requiring adjunct performances at sister-parish Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church .
Under Dr. Binkley, SABS enjoyed unprecedented success. The popularity of the concerts necessitated a full-time move to Grace St. Pauls. In 2012, after years of service to SABS, Ben Nisbet became the artistic director of SABS, replacing Dr. Binkley. Now in his 8th year as director, Mr. Nisbet has continued the spirit of ambitious programming with the establishment of the SABS Chmaber Orchestra, and landmark collaborations with organizations such as Tucson Chmaber Artists, with whom SABS presented Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" in 2013. In 2014, SABS presented two sold out performances of Vivaldi's Four Seasons set to a full-length ballet, choreographed and performed by Tucson's Artifact Dance Project. In 2016, SABS presented a highly acclaimed Brandenburg Fest.