From a young age, Mary and Kathleen Tierney showed a strong affinity for the violin. It would bond them as sisters and define their lives and careers. Before Mary Tierney passed away, she decided to share this lifelong passion through an extraordinary musical gift to UBC – two 18th Century Neapolitan violins, originally acquired by her sister.
Mary and Kathleen grew up in Calgary. As budding violinists, they quickly gained acclaim by participating in local concerts and festivals and were recognized among the city’s top musicians. In 1939, Mary’s extraordinary talent was recognized with a scholarship to the Royal Academy of London, and she left home to join Kathleen who was already a student there.
Like Kathleen, Mary was quickly recognized as a gifted pupil. She studied under Arthur Catterall, one of England’s best-known classical violinists, and went on to win the prestigious Marguerite Elzey Withers Memorial Prize with her friend Jean Gilbert.
In 1940, Mary returned to Calgary while Kathleen stayed in London. Kathleen remained there for the duration of the war and often played at the famous Myra Hess lunchtime concerts. There she also met her future husband John Fisher, who was the Conductor of the Saddlers’ Wells Orchestra.
It was during this time in London that Kathleen acquired two violins—one created by master luthier Alessandro Gagliano (Naples circa 1700-1702) and one by his grandson Ferdinando (Naples circa 1770). Alessandro was the first known Neapolitan violinmaker, and his family became renowned for their craftsmanship. Today, Gagliano instruments are rare and highly prized.
When Kathleen passed away in 1956, both violins went to Mary who was then living in Vancouver. She had joined the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 1944 and played with them for 45 years before retiring in 1989.
Before Mary passed away in 2007, she bequeathed both violins to the School of Music at UBC.
To thank Mary for her generosity, the School established the Mary and Kathleen Tierney Memorial Concert. Each year students compete for the honour of performing at this concert (and others) using the Gagliano violins.
Mary’s wish was that young violinists would be able to use these instruments to prepare for recitals. Her extraordinary gift was a token of the journey she had shared with Kathleen, and she hoped the experience would inspire young violinists to play with dedication and passion for years to come.