Moab was “kind of a little ghost town,” on the brink of coming into its own as a recreation destination, when Michael Barrett happened through on his way to Santa Fe, N.M., in 1991. The pianist and conductor was drawn to the place instantly; he returned with his wife, violist Leslie Tomkins, the next year.
“I became completely smitten in a way that was hard to ignore,” Tomkins said. “Something about the rocks and landscape spoke to me in a way I hadn’t experienced.” The couple had toyed with the idea of starting a music festival, and Moab felt like the perfect spot for it.
In those days, faxing was considered cutting-edge technology, and program proofs had to be sent back and forth by FedEx. Nowadays, festival business can be conducted in real time, no matter how far-flung the parties may be. “That really underscores the duration and what 25 years have meant,” Tomkins said.
The Moab Music Festival presented five concerts in 1993, its first season. The 25th season, which starts in the coming week, offers more than 20 events, most of them outdoors. Some of the most popular concerts take place in spots that are accessible only via a jet boat or a rigorous hike.
Barrett said he and Tomkins always have sought to grow the festival slowly and organically. “We weren’t trying to create another Aspen in Moab,” he said. “We wanted it appropriately sized to the town.”
Some things have been constant — a focus on education, a connection with the environment, a prominent presence for living composers. Barrett is particularly pleased to have mentored Juantio Becenti, a self-taught Navajo composer from Montezuma Creek who has been associated with the festival more than half his life. Meeting and talking with a local composer whose works have premiered in New York sends a powerful message to area schoolchildren, Barrett and Tomkins believe.
The New York-based couple also were determined not to just parachute in for a couple of weeks a year, but to foster a feeling of ownership among Moab’s residents. “It’s their music festival, their community,” Barrett said. He and Tomkins spend three months of the year at their Moab home, and the festival has a year-round office in town, with three full-time staffers. Most of the board members are local as well. Barrett and Tomkins perform on about half the concerts, and Barrett acts as host of each one.
This year’s opening-night concert marks the festival’s milestone year with music written by 25-year-old composers, from Mozart to Bernstein to festival artist Tessa Lark. “Twenty-five is really young,” Barrett said. “Remembering what you were like when you were 25 … is an energetic way to celebrate, instead of ‘How did we get so old?’ ”
Barrett also will use the occasion to kick off a centennial celebration of his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, who was born Aug. 25, 1918. This year’s festival ends with a salute to the legendary composer-conductor-pianist. Barrett was Bernstein’s conducting assistant and rehearsal pianist for the last six years of the elder musician’s life. Jamie Bernstein will narrate the concert dedicated to her father’s work. She’s been an enthusiastic supporter of the Moab Music Festival since Day 1, proudly reporting that she’s missed only three seasons (no easy feat for a mom living in New York, she said). She loves bringing festival newcomers on the car journey from Grand Junction, Colo., to Moab and watching their reactions. “It’s a combination of an earful and eyeful like you’ve never had in your life.”
Between those two mileposts are an eclectic mix of concerts featuring the Brazilian-flavored Requinte Trio, the Cuban dance music of the Pedrito Martinez Group and more.
“I love to try to get people to cross the taste line,” Barrett said. Some listeners might consider chamber music “too brainy, too elitist, too blah blah blah.” But they might be willing to go hear banjo virtuosos Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn or jazz pianist Marcus Roberts — and they might end up saying, “I had no idea I liked that kind of music so much.”
Silver season in redrock country
The Moab Music Festival presents its 25th season in venues in and around Moab. Visit moabmusicfest.org for tickets and more information; call 435-259-7003 to be placed on a waiting list for sold-out events.
Grotto concerts • All three concerts — Aug. 31, Sept. 7 and Sept. 11 — are sold out.
‘25 and Counting’ • Pieces written by 25-year-old composers; Friday, Sept. 1, 7 p.m., Star Hall; $25 ($5 for children).
Music hikes • The first two hikes, Sept. 2 and 3, are sold out; some $65 tickets remain for hikes Sept. 9 and 10.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn • Sept. 2, 6 p.m., Red Cliffs Lodge; only lawn seating remains; $30 ($5 for children).
Requinte Trio • Sept. 3, 6 p.m., Red Cliffs Lodge; $40 reserved, $30 lawn ($20 and $5 for children).
Rocky Mountain Power Family Concert • Sept. 4, 2 p.m., Old City Park; free.
Benefit concerts • Sept. 5 at a private ranch and Sept. 6 at a private home; sold out.
Marcus Roberts • Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m., Star Hall; $35 ($5 for children).
‘Composers We Have Known’ • Works of former resident composers, including Ned Rorem, William Bolcom and Juantio Becenti; Sept. 8, 7 p.m., Star Hall; $25 ($5 for children).
Open rehearsal conversation • Music director Michael Barrett is host of a rehearsal of the Schubert String Sextet; Sept. 9, 1:30 p.m., Star Hall; free.
Pedrito Martinez Group • Sept. 9, 6 p.m., Sorrel River Ranch; $40 ($5 for children).
Bernstein Celebration • Sept. 10, 7 p.m., Grand County High School; $25 ($5 for children).