A pianist, violinist, and small audience are tucked into a sandstone alcove.
[Courtesy photo]

One of Moab’s most iconic yearly events is back: The Moab Music Festival, now in its 30th year. The festival, which runs from Aug. 22 to Sept. 16, presents classical music “in concert with the landscape,” meaning most of the concerts are outside: locations include the Red Cliffs Lodge, Sorrel River Ranch, and hidden pockets in the Moab wilderness that are hiked or boated to. 

Leslie Thompkins, the artistic director and one of the festival founders, said the outdoor stages enhance the music simply because both elements are equally moving. When she first came to Moab, she said, she fell in love with it.

“The whole landscape—I was profoundly moved by it in a way really that I had not ever been, except sometimes in a situation of sharing music with people,” she said. “There was something incredibly magical about the rocks, and something magical about the alchemy of music and audience and performers.” 

Each piece of the festival—the music, the performer, the audience—are unified by their awe, Thompkins said. 

“I have found that the people who attend, and the performers, are equally affected,” she said. “The landscape is the unifying thing between everybody there … the concerts become bigger than the sum of their parts.” 

For the 30th year, Thompkins and Michael Barrett, the festival’s music director and co-founder, said they wanted to acknowledge and celebrate Moab: the history, the people, the landscape, and previous festivals. They’re doing this throughout 18 concerts.

There’s a wide mix of music and musicians this year, Barrett said, describing it as “an embarrassment of riches.” There will be more contemporary music, he said, as the festival will feature 12 living composers; but also nods to festivals past, with favorites such as Time for Three and Béla Fleck returning with their own concerts. 

“We have quite a big rotation of fantastic, repeating artists,” Barrett said, “but I’m always on the lookout here and in Europe and everywhere I go for the great new talents.” 

The festival’s centerpiece on Sept. 3 is a showcase of contemporary Native American composers titled “Sunrise on Turtle Island.” The conductor and pianist Timothy Long (Muscogee, Thlopthlocco, Choctaw) curated performances of four world premieres created by the living composers Dawn Avery (Mohawk), Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (Chickasaw), Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache), and Martha Redbone (Choctaw). Each explores the composers’ stories of growing up in America. 

Barrett and Thompkins highlighted two other concerts with relevant themes: “Extreme Weather” on Aug. 26 and “Copland & The American West” on Sept. 4. “Extreme Weather” will explore how composers have depicted weather in their work—such as Beethoven’s “Pastoral” and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”—and used weather as a metaphor for emotion. “Copland & The American West” explores the Moab area’s history as a setting for Westerns: the musicians playing this concert will perform pieces created by Aaron Copland, such as “Zion’s Walls” and “Appalachian Spring.”

“Despite being a nice guy from Brooklyn, Copland codified the sounds that a lot of people think of as emblematic of the American West,” Thompkins said. 

The author Gerald Elias will also perform at the “American West” concert—he’ll share two works about early Moab settlers, “Grandstaff,” a portrait of William Grandstaff, and “Conversations with Essie,” Essie White’s oral history of her days running the White Ranch. 

The festival line-up includes three Grotto and Music Hike concerts, in which attendees boat or hike to the location. This year, there’s another secret-location-outdoor concert: “Music in the Meadow,” on Aug. 28. Attendees will be shuttled to a trailhead and led to the concert, which features Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Duo for Violin and Viola” and Antonín Dvořák’s “String Quintet.”

The free community concert will take place on Sept. 5 at Old City Park. Each year, the festival includes this free concert as a thank-you to the Moab community: the concert features a sampling of the other concerts played during the festival.

There will also be two free “pop-up” concerts for the local community, Thompkins said: the program, time, and location will be announced a few days before, or the day of, on the Moab Music Festivals’ social media pages. 

“These are sort of like, grab a cup of coffee and we’ll have an artist there to play something and share something about themselves in a more informal setting,” Thompkins said.

The schedule of concerts and tickets are available at www.moabmusicfest.org

“I’m just really looking forward to celebrating the idea that all of us have gotten this far—everyone’s been through so much,” Thompkins said. “It’s never been easy being an arts organization, and a pandemic doesn’t do a lot to help an arts organization. The opportunity to practice gratitude with music in Moab is really what I’m looking forward to this year.”