The Utah Symphony is hitting the road again and bringing several friends along.
Three years after playing at the state’s five national parks on the Mighty 5 tour, the orchestra and music director Thierry Fischer will give five outdoor performances at state or national parks and monuments. The Great American Road Trip will cover 1,200 miles over five days, Aug. 29 to Sept. 2.
In addition to composer-instrumentalist Brent Michael Davids, soprano Abigail Rethwisch and baritone Andrew Paulson, the orchestra’s traveling companions include education personnel from the Natural History Museum of Utah, the University of Utah’s Consortium for Dark Sky Studies and the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative. The organizations will collaborate on school presentations, postconcert star parties and other outreach activities.
“The Utah Symphony regards itself as an organization that serves the entire state,” said Paula Fowler, director of education and community outreach for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. But while the orchestra performs at every public school in Utah in a three-year rotation, “we’re not always able to do evening community concerts,” she said. “What I loved about Mighty 5 was that they were concerts for everybody.”
Encouraged by the reception — for example, at least 1,000 people, or nearly half the population of Wayne County, turned out on a rainy Tuesday night for the Mighty 5 opener in Teasdale, just outside Capitol Reef National Park — orchestra officials started asking, “When are we going to do it again?” Fowler said. Now, with funds raised and logistics worked out, the musicians and staff are ready to “reach out in a meaningful way to other communities.”
Fischer will conduct three concerts by the full orchestra in or near Zion National Park and Natural Bridges/Hovenweep and Dinosaur national monuments. A brass quintet led by associate principal trumpet Jeff Luke will perform at Cedar Breaks National Monument and Goblin Valley State Park, and a string quartet led by concertmaster Madeline Adkins will play at the Vernal Brewing Company near Dinosaur.
The Great American Road Trip — or GART, as symphony personnel call it — will pick up where the Mighty 5 tour left off: in Springdale’s O.C. Tanner Amphitheater just outside Zion. It’s the only already-existing venue on the tour. The other concerts will be played on a portable stage similar to the one the orchestra used on the Mighty 5 tour; it requires eight to 10 hours to set up and an additional six to take down, and it has to be trucked to each stop. “There are unique challenges at each venue, but we feel pretty prepared,” Jeff Counts, Utah Symphony general manager and operations VP, said at the news conference announcing the tour.
The tour’s final stop, in Vernal, is “amazingly far away” from the previous stops in Bluff and Goblin Valley, Fowler said. The road has one particularly tight turn; symphony education assistant Kyleene Johnson said the truck carrying the stage will have to switch out the cab in order to negotiate it.
Unlike the August 2014 tour, GART will take place while school is in session, so assemblies with a woodwind trio from the orchestra will be part of the mix. There will be activity tables in some of the parks during the day, encouraging visitors to listen for music in nature — and, conversely, to listen for nature in music. The education department also will be on site an hour or two before each concert and at intermission, teaching about musical elements that can be heard in birdsong. Educators from NHMU will bring geological artifacts for guests to touch and feel, as well as flutes and drums they can play. “We are very excited to add the natural sciences to the team’s outreach efforts and provide engaging, cool, science-based activities for all ages to highlight the truly fascinating natural history that surrounds us in our state,” Sarah George, the museum’s executive director, said in a news release announcing the tour.
Each evening from Monday through Friday, the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies and the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative will partner with park rangers and local astronomers to present star parties at accredited or aspiring International Dark Sky Parks along the tour route.
The cultural sharing will be reciprocated at the tour’s last stop, Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument. Storyteller Larry Cesspooch will tell the Ute Creation Story, and dancers and singers from the tribe will perform a Bear Dance.
The orchestra’s concert program is heavy on pieces inspired by nature, including “Song to the Moon” from Dvorák’s opera “Rusalka,” Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Debussy’s “Claire de lune.” Rethwisch and Paulson, who happen to be married, will sing operatic and musical-theater duets. Rethwisch also will sing Davids’ “Spirit Woman Song,” and the composer — a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation — will play the wood flute in a movement from his concerto “Fluting Around.”
Davids wrote the concerto for longtime friend Margaret Cornils Luke to play at their alma mater, Northern Illinois University. The first and last movements are written for the metal flute typically heard in an orchestra, but the middle movement is played on a wood flute.
The composer explained that traditionally, wood flutes are made by (or for) the musicians who will play them. They aren’t tuned to a standard pitch or scale, and the finger holes are placed wherever it’s comfortable for the player’s fingers to lie. “Every flute has its idiosyncratic tunings, melodies and pitches,” Davids said. Luke premiered the concerto using a commercially produced wood flutes, but when Davids played it himself, he reworked it for his flute, which he custom made for performances with an orchestra.
“Spirit Woman Song” is an aria from “an opera that never got made” about the trial of Standing Bear, a 19th-century Ponca chief who sued to stop his removal to a reservation — and won. “It was the first ruling to find that Native Americans were actually people in the eyes of the law and entitled to civil rights,” Davids said. The character of Spirit Woman was the composer’s way “to give the land a voice,” he said, “singing about the Earth and what the Earth experienced during the surrender, forced removal and genocide” of a nation. (To hear examples of the composer’s music, visit filmcomposer.us.)
Davids, who has coached American Indian students in musical notation and composition for nearly two decades, said he also looks forward to making educational presentations to students and the community. “These visits are a kind of role modeling,” he said.
“He takes a lot of elements of Native music … and puts it in a symphonic style, but always maintaining the cultural elements, which is really cool,” Johnson said. “It’s more than cool — it’s amazing that a symphony orchestra is finally paying attention to this music.
“It’s one of our unique opportunities to bring forward new sounds.”
On the road again
The Utah Symphony will perform in or near several Utah state or national parks and monuments.
Tuesday, Aug. 29, 8 p.m. • Orchestra concert, O.C. Tanner Amphitheater, Springdale
Wednesday, Aug. 30, 6:30 p.m. • Chamber music, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Thursday, Aug. 31, 8 p.m. • Orchestra concert near Natural Bridges/Hovenweep national monuments, Bluff
Friday, Sept. 1, 2 p.m. • Chamber music, Goblin Valley State Park
Saturday, Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m. • Chamber music, Vernal Brewing Co.
Saturday, Sept. 2, 8 p.m. • Orchestra concert, Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument, Vernal
Tickets • All concerts will be ticketed and free of charge. Tickets will be available from the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera ticket office (utahsymphony.org or 801-533-6683) starting at 10 a.m. May 31. Some walk-up tickets may be available on performance night.
Star parties • The University of Utah’s Consortium for Dark Sky Studies and the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative will partner with park rangers and local astronomers to present star parties each evening near concert sites: Monday, 10 p.m., Unity Park in Ivins; Tuesday, 10 p.m., Springdale Community Center; Wednesday, 8 p.m., Point Supreme at Cedar Breaks; Thursday, 10 p.m., Bluff Community Center; Friday, 9:30 p.m., Steinaker State Park, and 10 p.m., Observation Point parking lot at Goblin Valley State Park.
Correction: Aug. 28, 3:05 p.m. • An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the scope of Utah Symphony education outreach. The orchestra reaches every school district in the state in a three-year rotation.