Michael Barrett stopped in Moab on a solo trip to Santa Fe. The next year he brought his wife, Leslie Tomkins, to town for a vacation.
“I was so overwhelmed. I was completely smitten. It was like love at first sight. It had an immensely visceral reaction to the area,” Tomkins said. “I wanted to know that I was going to come back here.”
The couple had a rich musical history and considered starting a music festival. Tomkins believed this was the place. There were tourists. There was the beautiful Star Hall. And she simply wanted a reason to return to Moab.
“I knew we’d never come back if we didn’t do it,” Tomkins said. “It was a natural combination to put together. Combine music and a place that is visually astounding.”
Thus, in 1992, the Moab Music Festival was born.
This year it is celebrating its 20th anniversary of music in concert with the landscape.
“I had no idea we’d make it through the first year,” Tomkins said.
Barrett attributes the success of the festival to faith and goodwill. The two began with $65,000 budget and hosted concerts in Star Hall, at Old City Park and a in a portable geodesic dome in the desert. The festival spent and took in about $55,000, Barrett said.
“We launched. People came and were enthusiastic. Every year it gets better,” he said.
Barrett was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, an American conductor best known for West Side Story. Barrett served as Bernstein’s assistant conductor from 1985 to 1990. He has also been a guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic and London Symphony.
Tomkins studied at the San Francisco Conservatory and Mannes College of Music. She has appeared with Brooklyn Philharmonic and American Symphony.
Over the years they’ve invited friends and colleagues to share their talents.
“Some musicians have continually come back for the last 15 to 16 years,” Barrett said.
He credits the continued success of the festival to a strong board of directors that provide good leadership and is both active in fundraising and fiscally conservative.
“They let us dream,” he said.
Hank Rutter is one of those board members. He’s been working with Barrett and Tomkins since the first festival.
His father and Tomkins’ father worked together at a university.
Rutter’s father and Tomkin’s mother remained friends after Tomkin’s father’s death. The two would do dinner once or twice a year to keep in touch. At one dinner Rutter’s father asked how Barrett and Tomkins were doing.
“She said ‘They want to start a music festival in some God forsaken place called Moab,’” Rutter said. “My father’s jaw dropped. My wife and I lived in Moab.”
Rutter helped Barrett and Tomkins find venues, like Star Hall and Old City Park. They became fast friends. He made a financial contribution. He went to the first festival’s events: four concerts and a movie.
“I immediately saw what a cool thing it is to experience the music in this landscape,” Rutter said. “I think it has already become a well-known music festival around the country, and I hope it continues to be a drawing card for people to come to Moab and enjoy this landscape. I don’t believe there is anything like it.”
Twenty years later the festival has 16 concerts.
The Family Picnic in the Park is held every Labor Day in Old City Park.
In the 1990s the concert at The Grotto was added. Concert-goers take a jet boat down the Colorado River to Canyonlands National Park, only to hike into a natural amphitheater formed by flash flood waterfalls. There they find a grand piano, and the concert begins.
Concerts have been added at Red Cliffs Lodge and Sorrel River Ranch along the Colorado River.
Then there are the music hikes.
“You get in a van and head to the country-side. You go for a walk that may be a mile long and find musicians who play a concert for you,” Rutter said. “The sound in the rock is an unbelievable sound that could be equal to any concert hall in the world anywhere.”
There are free concerts as well, such as Open Rehearsals on Saturday mornings in Star Hall.
The board of directors provides more than just the festival. They emphasize musical opportunity throughout the year. There is the winter concert. There are the instruments that have been bought for the high school music program. There was the development of the Moab Community Band that plays for regular contra dances. And finally, there was the funding provided to the school district to hire a licensed music teacher at Helen M. Knight Elementary.
“One of our big goals is help the schools and the community to have a musical scene,” Rutter said.