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Moab Music Festival: Music in 'a miracle of a place'

Published August 26, 2014 9:17 am

Moab Music Festival opens its 22nd season of indoor and outdoor concerts this week.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As thousands of Utah Symphony patrons discovered earlier this month, the music of history's greatest composers can be enjoyed in scenic natural amphitheaters as well as in air-conditioned concert halls. Michael Barrett has known that for years. The Moab Music Festival, which he co-founded with his wife, Leslie Tomkins, is about to launch its 22nd season of "music in concert with the landscape."

Moab is "a miracle of a place — the landscape, the parks, the Colorado River, the weather, everything," Barrett said. "When you put music with that, it's a great, great marriage."

Here's a rundown of events at this year's festival.

Grotto concerts • The festival is presenting three of these signature events at a secluded grotto on the Colorado River, and all three sold out early. Barrett said he always strives to program music that is worthy of the spectacular setting. A highlight of the first concert will be the solo horn movement from Olivier Messiaen's suite "From the Canyons to the Stars," inspired by the French composer's 1972 visit to southern Utah. Edmar Castaneda, who plays a distinctive style of jazz on his Colombian folk harp, also will perform on this concert. "Playing there is really special and amazing," Castaneda said during a break from a recording session in New York.

Music, Marriage and Madness • The musical and personal relationships among Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms are a perennial source of fascination for music enthusiasts: how Clara Schumann, a brilliant pianist and composer, sacrificed her career for her husband's; how Robert Schumann's debilitating mental illness affected the family; and how Brahms, who was devoted to both Schumanns, moved into the house while Robert was institutionalized. Barrett, a conductor, pianist and protégé of the late Leonard Bernstein, said he will share the story in what he hopes is "a fairly entertaining, fun way" as festival musicians perform chamber music written by all three composers.

Music hikes • The festival season includes three concerts in settings accessible only by foot. Barrett doesn't disclose the locations in advance; even the meet-up place to catch the shuttle to the trailhead is available only upon registration. "We like to control our impact on the wilderness," he said.

Edmar Castaneda Trio With Andrea Tierra • Castaneda will headline an evening under the open-sided pavilion at Moab's Red Cliffs Lodge with support from saxophonist Shlomi Cohen, percussionist Dave Silliman and his wife, singer Andrea Tierra. "He makes quite an impact on people," said Barrett, who has asked Castaneda to play on three programs in his return to Moab. "He's kind of created an entirely new [musical] language."

Castaneda started playing the Colombian folk harp as a teenager in Bogotá. He and his sister moved to New York to live with their father in 1994, when Edmar was 16; he fell in love with jazz and became proficient on the trumpet, though he continued playing his harp in restaurants to earn money for school. "It was like two careers," he said, recalling how he would learn music on the trumpet in school during the day, then play the same music on the harp at night.

Ireland in the New World • Audiences will be able to hear another flavor of harp music when Maeve Gilchrist plays a traditional concert harp in a program that also features Celtic music specialist Christopher Layer on pipes and flutes, festival favorite Paul Woodiel on guitar and Natalie Haas on cello. Barrett said the concert will acquaint listeners with "authentic old-time Irish music and how it came to America."

Rocky Mountain Power Free Family Picnic Concert • The Moab Music Festival always has included a free, family-oriented concert on Labor Day. Barrett said he's aimed to give this year's edition a higher profile because 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of nearby Canyonlands National Park. A highlight will be the world premiere of an opera scene by composer-novelist-violinist Gerald Elias, best-known for his years as the Utah Symphony's associate concertmaster.

Elias said the idea of an opera about the life of William Granstaff, the African-American rancher who settled in Moab in the late 19th century, has tantalized him for years, so he was delighted when Barrett commissioned him to write a short piece to be performed by opera singers from the University of Utah. The scene, which Elias envisions as an act finale, features three characters: Granstaff, portrayed by baritone Jared Lesa; his sometime business partner, known only as Frenchie, sung by tenor Lucas Goodrich; and Granstaff's wife, Rebecca, about whom even less is known, but whom Elias envisions as a Ute or Paiute woman, portrayed by soprano Jennifer Erickson.

"I've set the piece at the critical moment when Granstaff is deciding whether to stay [in Moab] or leave" because of political conflicts in town, Elias said in a phone chat from the wilds of western Massachusetts, where he's been playing with the Boston Symphony this summer. "Frenchie is trying to talk him into going to California as a prospector, but Rebecca wants to go to Colorado to settle there."

Elias noted he hopes his opera will give some traction to the movement to rename Negro Bill Canyon to William Granstaff Canyon.

The Labor Day concert will include works by two other Utah composers: Juantio Becenti, who lives and composes in the Navajo Nation and has written what Barrett described as "a joyous, fun piano quartet"; and Neal Stucki, a Moab teen whom Barrett has been mentoring.

House concerts • A pair of benefit concerts, set on a private ranch and at a private home, are sold out, but will feature music from Galicia and European chamber music, respectively. "It's very exciting to hear music in someone's house," said Barrett, noting that many of the masterpieces of Western music were heard for the first time in patrons' homes.

Freedom and Censorship: The Music of Russia and Poland • This concert, which will feature a bit of narration from Barrett, will include music from before and after Communist rule of Russia and Poland. He's happy to give more exposure to two of the featured composers in particular: Mieczyslaw Weinberg, best-known now for his opera "The Passenger," and Grazyna Bacevicz, who is "kind of a hero in Poland."

John Pizzarelli Quartet • The renowned guitarist and singer, a perennial favorite on the Jazz SLC series, will perform selections from the Great American Songbook with his quartet at the Sorrel River Ranch.

There Will Always Be an England • The centerpiece of the festival's finale concert is Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury," the first operetta to appear at the Moab Music Festival. Barrett will conduct singers from the University of Utah opera program.

Selections by British composers Benjamin Britten, Arnold Bax and Alice Verne-Bredt round out the program. "It's not the same old chestnuts," Barrett said. "There's a richer culture there to be discovered." —

In concert with the landscape

The Moab Music Festival presents its 22nd season in indoor and outdoor venues in and around town.

When • Opens Thursday, Aug. 28, and continues through Sept. 8; for a complete schedule, visit http://www.moabmusicfestival.org.

This week's events

'Crescendo! The Power of Music' • Free screening of Jamie Bernstein's documentary about youth orchestra programs in the U.S. inspired by Venezuela's phenomenally successful El Sistema, Thursday, Aug. 28, 7:30 p.m., Star Hall

Music, Marriage and Madness • An exploration of the music and lives of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, narrated by festival music director Michael Barrett, Friday, Aug. 29, 7 p.m., Star Hall; $25

Music Hike • Music of Martinu, Beethoven and Mozart, Saturday, Aug. 30, at 9 a.m. at a yet-to-be-disclosed location, accessed by a rigorous hike of approximately a mile (pickup location available upon purchase); $60

Edmar Castaneda Trio With Andrea Tierra • The Colombian jazz harp virtuoso is joined by his wife, singer Andrea Tierra, as well as saxophonist Shlomi Cohen and percussionist Dave Silliman, Saturday, Aug. 30, 6 p.m., Red Cliffs Lodge; $30

Ireland in the New World • A concert exploring the roots and pathways of Irish and Scottish music, Sunday, Aug. 31, 6 p.m., Red Cliffs Lodge; $30