Thomas DeWitt, left, directs the Grand County High School Marching Band during an Aug. 22 fundraising performance at the Moab Farmers' Market. With the help of Moab Music Festival Community Artist in Residence Christopher Layer, the band beat its goal of raising more than ,000 for musical instruments. [Photo by Nathan Wynn / Moab Sun News]

Whether they know it or not, concertgoers who attend the Moab Music Festival’s events over the next two weeks will be supporting local student musicians.

The Moab Music Festival is well-known for bringing top-notch musicians and unique programming to spectacular concert settings in southeastern Utah. But away from the concertgoers’ gaze, the nonprofit organization is just as focused on year-round educational and outreach programs at Grand County’s schools and Moab as a whole, according to festival music director Michael Barrett and artistic director Leslie Tomkin.

Barrett said the group is equally committed to enriching the lives of both audiences, whether it’s teaching concertgoers about unusual instruments, helping local students learn how to play or getting Moab’s Community Dance Band off the ground. And it goes without saying that ticket sales from the 11-day event help make that support possible.

For its 23rd annual event this month, the festival is offering a diverse lineup that fills a growing demand for one-of-a-kind events like its sold-out Colorado River grotto concerts, as well as free performances that are open to everyone.

“I don’t have any filler in this festival,” Barrett said.

Highlights include a Sept. 5 concert at Red Cliffs Lodge by pianist Chick Corea and banjo player Béla Fleck that mixes jazz and pop standards with bluegrass, rock, flamenco, gospel and other genres.

Internationally renowned musicians will also be performing pieces by Claude Debussy, Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach and Igor Stravinsky, and – of note to local audiences – the festival will be premiering composer Gerald Elias’ “The Ballad of William Grandstaff” in full.

Barrett said the festival sometimes struggles with the perception that it has so much money, and that its events are expensive – perhaps due to the popularity of its river grotto concerts, which cost $325 per person. But he pointed out that about one-third of the festival’s events are free, thanks to the sponsorship of partners like Rocky Mountain Power and Zions Bank.

One such event will be held at 2 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 7, at Old City Park in Spanish Valley. This year’s Rocky Mountain Power Family Concert will feature Time for Three, a lively string trio that includes Zachary De Pue and Nicholas Kendall on violins, and Ranaan Mayer on bass.

“I don’t know that I would call it classical, but I don’t know that I would call it something else,” Barrett said. “They’re genre-busting guys.”

Many of the musicians who will be appearing at the festival perform all over the world, and while they’re here in Moab, they often make themselves available to meet aspiring students.

The relationship between the festival and local schools dates back to 1993, when festival artists met face-to-face with 20 students in Grand County High School’s strings program.

“Since that very first year, education has been an important component for us,” Tomkin said.

Although the high school’s strings program was soon discontinued, the festival has joined forces with the Grand County Education Foundation and other partners to help keep other music programs afloat.

When a music teacher’s position at Helen M. Knight Elementary School was eliminated in 2011, the festival launched a fundraiser to supplement the teacher’s salary for two years, and with the help of other sponsors, the school was able to restore the position. All told, the fundraiser generated more than $35,000, according to Tomkin.

The next school year, it helped the BEACON Afterschool Program come up with enough money to start a new strings program, which has more than tripled in size and now includes more than 60 students in five classes.

“The BEACON Strings Program would not be in existence without the Moab Music Festival,” strings program director Nanci Flesher said. “We are absolutely grateful about that.”

Today, the festival provides about one-quarter of the BEACON Moab Strings Program’s annual budget, according to Tomkin, and Flesher said it helps low-income students cover the costs to participate in the program.

“There’s no way the parents could pay that kind of money,” she said.

Flesher said the festival’s commitment is evident in Barrett’s personal interest in the strings program.

When the program held its final combined recital last May, for instance, Flesher said that Barrett flew in to Moab from New York City just to hear the students perform. After the recital, she said, Barrett approached Flesher and asked what the festival can do to help the program overcome its remaining “deficits,” or areas that it needs to work on.

“He said, ‘Tell me what you need,’” she said.

In the wake of that conversation, Flesher said she expects to announce some good news for the program in the near future.

Already, she said she believes the overall investment in BEACON’s program led to the development of unrelated seventh- and eighth-grade strings classes at Grand County Middle School. In the future, she expects that interest in strings classes will continue to grow across the school district.

“If you put it in place and you make it happen, the people will come and you will also attract really good, quality people,” Flesher said.

Beyond its financial involvement in the schools, the festival hosts four annual school assemblies, offering local students the chance to hear world-class performers for free, and introducing them to diverse musical styles and concepts.

“It’s our way of trying to really have music not as a frill, but as something that’s necessary as part of your education and something that’s necessary as part of your life experience,” Barrett said.

This year, the New York Festival of Song artists who are appearing at the festival’s Sept. 13 Harlem Renaissance tribute program will host a free class for Grand County High School’s music and English classes. And students from the BEACON Moab Strings Orchestra – along with their parents and teachers – will attend the festival’s Sept. 11 Virtuosi concert at Sorrel River Ranch for free.

Highlights from the 23rd Annual Moab Music Festival

This year’s festival features 17 concerts and events in all, although its grotto concerts and music hikes have already sold out, and the demand is so strong that tickets for next year’s grotto concerts will go on sale this week.

Even so, there’s no shortage of music to hear, from new and old chamber music, to Brazilian-infused jazz and the duet concert with Corea and Fleck.

On Friday, Sept. 4, the “From Words to Music” program at Star Hall will explore the written word as a wellspring for music of the past and present. Festival composer-in-residence Harold Meltzer will narrate his 2005 work “Sindbad,” and his piece “Kriesleriana” will also be performed alongside works from Stravinsky, Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg.

“All of the pieces are based on literature in some way,” Barrett said.

On a decidedly different note, festival publicist Elizabeth Dworkin is looking forward to “What the Heck is That?” a Sept. 6 program at Red Cliffs Lodge that features musicians playing “cruel and unusual” instruments like the theremin, continuum, waterphone and nose flute.

The theremin pops up in soundtracks to numerous horror and suspense films from the 1940s and 1950s, including Miklós Rózsa’s score to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” which will be performed during the program.

Another strange piece by John Cage makes use of any “instruments” that are found in an average living room, such as magazines, books or even floor surfaces.

“The festival is always trying to do things that are a little unusual … or a twist on the traditional,” Dworkin said.

The following weekend, things return to normal with a Sept. 12 performance at Sorrel River Ranch by pianist, composer and singer Claire Assad and Off the Cliff.

On Sunday, Sept. 13, the New York Festival of Song returns for a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance. The program will feature the works of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and poet Langston Hughes, as well as lesser known composers from the era.

“That program is worth driving long distances to see,” Dworkin said.

Tomkin said the program has much to say about an amazing time in African American cultural history.

“It’s very rich history, but it’s not a history lesson,” she said.

It also offers audiences the opportunity to hear soprano Julia Bullock.

“(Bullock) is a tremendous singer who is someone to catch at this time,” she said. “She’s had a meteoric rise.”

Tomkin also expects that audiences that night will be as captivated as she is with baritone singer James Martin.

“As soon as he opens his mouth, I’m riveted,” she said. “He has me by the heart.”

23rd annual Moab Music Festival returns through Sept. 14 – and makes a difference in local students’ lives, too

For ticket prices, concert times or more information, go to, call 435-259-7003, or drop by the festival’s office at 58 E. 300 South.

I don’t have any filler in this festival.