The sound of music will fill the canyons as the Moab Music Festival (MMF) returns, bringing “music in concert with the landscape” to the area, beginning on Thursday, Aug. 28 and running through Monday, Sept. 8.
This season showcases a diverse musical program with highlights that include a classic canon from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, contemporary interpretations of traditional Irish and Scottish folk music with artist-in-residence Christopher Layer, and Paul Woodiel, as well as jazz standards performed by the John Pizzarelli Quartet.
“I feel privileged to play with the artists that we have this season,” MMF artistic director and co-founder Leslie Tomkins said. “I really like the breadth of musical styles we have here.”
Festival director Laura Doser Brown said she is excited to have the John Pizzarelli Quartet performing.
“We’ve had people who aren’t even aware of the festival buying tickets to see him since March,” Brown said. “If people don’t know about Pizzarelli, they should come to the concert. They will be pleasantly surprised at what they hear.”
Pizzarelli has established himself as one of the prime interpreters of the “Great American Songbook.” He is a Grammy winner, and has performed numerous times on television including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
In addition, this year’s annual free family picnic concert at Old City Park will premiere three original compositions from Utah composers, including 16-year-old Moab resident Neal Stucki; Gerald Elias from Salt Lake City; and Juantio Becenti, from the town of Aneth, on the Navajo Nation.
“Juantio is a very gifted and motivated composer,” Tomkins said. “He found classical music on his own and his interest and dedication is remarkable. I find him wonderful to work with.”
Elias, who held positions with both the Boston and Utah symphonies, is also an established novelist. He will premiere a 10-minute musical drama he has written about William Granstaff, an early African-American settler who made his home in a canyon just up the Colorado River from Moab.
“The first time I hiked Negro Bill Canyon, I became interested in him (Granstaff),” Elias said. “His ability to survive quite successfully during his years in Moab fascinated me.”
Elias said he spoke with Moab resident Louis Williams, who provided him with a verbal history that helped galvanize his ideas, and that the piece takes place at a pivotal point when Granstaff is trying to decide whether to stay in Moab or flee to Colorado.
Now in its 22nd year, the MMF continues its tradition of assembling a diverse ensemble of world-class artists with performances in stunning, natural settings. Concerts take place in a red rock grotto accessed by riverboat, in narrow canyons, where musicians and audience members alike hike to the location, and at guest ranches along the Colorado River.
Historic Star Hall in downtown Moab also serves as a venue.
The vision it still holds to today, Tomkins said, is to have the landscape be the setting for the music, but not just simply as a backdrop.
“It (the landscape) is an integral part of the experience,” Tomkins said. “As a performing artist, you are struck by the intense power of all this beauty and that informs your performance.”
Tomkins also said that their over-arching philosophy is to bring performances of the highest level to audiences, to keep the concerts intimate and welcoming, while celebrating and respecting the immeasurable beauty of the area.
“We want to maintain an intimate feel where people feel that they can talk to the artists,” she said.
Brown, in her second year as director, said she wasn’t sure what to expect when she came to the MMF. An accomplished oboist with the Grand Junction Symphony, she hadn’t spent much time in Moab prior to taking a job with the festival.
“When I first went to the concerts, I was blown away,” she said. “By the musicianship, and by the casualness of it. I had never enjoyed a classical music concert so much.”
Tomkins said that when she first saw the area, she knew it was the place for an outdoor music festival. She and her husband Michael Barrett, who is also the festival’s musical director, had been performing in New York and at other festivals, and were looking for a place to start their own.
Barrett had visited the area the year before on his way to play at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
“I went into Arches (National Park) at 2:30 in the afternoon in August and stopped at Park Avenue,” Barrett said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. I raced down into the canyon and then realized I was going to die in there. I didn’t have any water!”
Barrett then drove down to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and watched the sunset from the hood of his car. After that, the full moon came up and he knew he was definitely going to come back. He brought Tomkins back the following year and that he said, is when she got the inspiration to hold the festival here.
“We went to Arches, and there was this storm in the distance,” Tomkins said. “We sat on the rocks and I felt this thing go through me and I thought wow, these are some powerful rocks.”
Barrett, equally as taken by the area, agreed.
“Moab is about the place, music in concert with the landscape, that was the great potential for us,” he said. “It was a spiritual potential. This place is so different, so other, so stark and fantastic, we just thought it was the ultimate place to make music.”
In addition to making music in beautiful places, the MMF is also committed to the cultural and musical education of the Moab community, as well as serving as an aide for keeping alive musical traditions that have been a part of the town since it was settled.
Layer, who is remarkably versed in the history of Moab, helped form the Moab Dance Band to re-establish the tradition of social dancing in Moab.
“Social dancing was a part of Moab since the beginning up until the 1970s,” Layer said. “Len Stocks and Sam Taylor used to play in The Woodsmen of the World, they used to hold outdoor dances next to Star Hall.”
Layer plays pipes and flutes and has a background in traditional Irish and Scottish music. He performs in Moab at different times during the year, often at the Grand Center, or at the extended care center. During the festival, he does outreach programs at the high school, and during the winter months, he works with the choral students.
He also started “Band Aid,” a program to raise funds to re-establish the Moab Marching Band, which has been going strong now for three years. The marching band conducted a fundraising performance at the Farmer’s Market on Thursday, Aug. 21.
Of Moab, Layer said that he is quite taken with the place, and that he felt there was something he could do here.
“You come for the scenery,” he said. “You stay for the people.”
With scenery and community as major components, it still comes down to the music, and Barrett made it clear that the music comes first, without pomp and frills.
“We are here to make the best music we can,” Barrett said. “And we want to keep it real.”
Barrett said that he is also looking forward to the future and that the MMF remains his priority.
“I’ve played in all the greatest concert halls with a lot of great artists, but this is what keeps me tethered to the earth, to nature, and to the values I hold dear in life.”
Event runs Aug. 28 to Sept. 8
“When I first went to the concerts, I was blown away. By the musicianship, and by the casualness of it. I had never enjoyed a classical music concert so much.”