On paper, it looks like a musical mismatch: She’s a conservatory-trained veteran of a major U.S. orchestra and daughter of a prominent LDS Church leader; he’s a shaggy-haired, free-spirited purveyor of new-agey jazz whose left-leaning sympathies sometimes rile his more conservative social-media followers.
Meet BFFs Kurt Bestor and Jenny Oaks Baker.
“Jenny and I are quite opposite, and yet, together, we have created her sound — an amalgam of my arranging and her playing style,” Bestor said. “We truly love working together and yet are very opposite in just about every way.”
“I don’t think we’re as opposite as he says,” said Baker, who credits Bestor’s arrangements and musical advice with helping her develop as an artist. “He’s very deeply spiritual. He’s authentic. He cares deeply for music and for others. I hope we’re not opposite in those ways.”
Baker is the first of four guest artists who will headline Bestor’s holiday shows in Salt Lake City’s Eccles Theater this year. It’s the 30th annual edition of the popular concerts, and Bestor invited fans to vote on which guests from previous years they wanted to bring back. The other headliners are soprano Lexi Walker, the One Voice Children’s Choir and actor-singer Dallyn Vail Bayles.
Bestor said he’s delighted with the results, and not just because the all-local lineup spares him the expense of flying someone in from as far away as Jerusalem.
“The audience, without knowing it, chose a wide cross-section of artists,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better mix.”
It also means four times as many new musical arrangements for him. “I didn’t quite think that through,” he said.
Baker is the sixth child of Dallin and June Oaks, born while her father was president of Brigham Young University in Provo. Because 13 years separate her from her closest sibling, “I was basically an only child,” she said.
When Jenny was 4, Hiroko Primrose — an early champion of the Suzuki method of violin instruction — moved to Provo with her husband, the eminent Scottish violist William Primrose. June Oaks was impressed with what she heard of the method and signed her young daughter up for lessons right away.
Parental involvement is central to the Suzuki philosophy, so “it was a beautiful way we bonded,” Baker said. “It was a special time developing something that would be with me for the rest of my life and that I can share with my children.” A portrait of June Oaks, who died of cancer in 1998, has a prominent spot in the music room of Baker’s Davis County home.
The Oaks family moved to Salt Lake City when Jenny was 9, her father having been appointed to the state Supreme Court (four years later, he received a lifetime calling to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of Twelve Apostles). His home office was near her room, and she remembers him leaving the office door open so he could hear her practicing.
After graduating from East High (and being featured on a couple of Utah Symphony holiday matinees), she earned a bachelor’s degree at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and a master’s at the Juilliard School in New York City. In a coincidence she considers miraculous, she met Matt Baker at church on her first Sunday in New York, shortly after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. He was there for a job interview but extended his stay a few days, and “we had a great time on his parents’ credit cards,” she said. The couple got engaged a couple of months later and married in the spring, bumping up the date so her ailing mother could attend.
Matt Baker’s job in the software business took the couple to the Washington, D.C., area for 16 years. Jenny won a job in the National Symphony Orchestra. “It was a great job,” she said. “I loved the people, I loved the music and working with [music director] Leonard Slatkin. I loved playing at the Kennedy Center.” Her three daughters (Laura, now 15; Hannah, 14; and Sarah, 12) were born during her seven seasons with the orchestra. The work week was stable and allowed plenty of time with her growing family.
But when she was pregnant with Matthew, now 10, “I felt it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing anymore.” So she quit the orchestra. “It was scary, but I knew it was the right thing.” Right away, even before her resignation was announced, concert offers started coming in. Her husband picked up the slack whenever she traveled, but still, it was a relief when he changed jobs and the family was able to move back to Utah. “Most of my concerts are out West,” she said.
She signed up the children for music lessons early, just as her mother had done — violin for Laura, piano for Hannah, cello for Sarah and guitar for Matthew. Now, they’re all so proficient that they join her onstage at almost every performance. (Dad Matt gamely sang “Edelweiss” in a “Sound of Music” medley — arranged by Bestor — that the family filmed recently in Salzburg, Austria.)
“I never envisioned performing with my children,” she said. “I should have; it makes so much sense and I’m such a planner. I worried when I was younger how I could be a mother who’s present and a good performer. Heavenly Father led us all along the way. If I’d figured it out today, it would be 13 years too late.”
It’s important to Baker that her children have interests outside music, such as soccer and tennis. “My music is better because I know more than music,” she said. “I want them to have a childhood and relationships with friends. I want them to be well-rounded so they’ll have something to say musically. … I don’t want to burn them out.” Spreadsheets help her stay on top of everyone’s activities and performances. “Every day’s a different busy,” she said.
Baker, 42, has been working with Bestor half her life. He contributed two arrangements to her first album; by the fourth album, he was doing all the arranging as well as producing. He’s arranged everything from Mormon hymns to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for her, and lately he’s been writing for the Baker kids as well.
“When we record, she is hyperfocused on perfection — every note perfectly in tune, perfectly in rhythm,” Bestor said. “I want perfect emotion — to me, that trumps everything. She’s helped me by raising my standard; I’ve helped her [by urging her to] play your heart, play your pain.”
He circled back to that whole “opposites” thing: “We’re opposite in many things in our lives that don’t matter. When we combine our talents, it’s been really wonderful.”
Kurt Bestor presents his 30th annual Christmas concerts, each with a different musical guest chosen by popular vote.
Jenny Oaks Baker • Thursday, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m.
Lexi Walker • Friday, Dec. 15, 8 p.m.
One Voice Children’s Choir • Saturday, Dec. 16, 2 p.m.
Dallyn Vail Bayles • Saturday, Dec. 16, 8 p.m.
Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $32.50-$57.50; artsaltlake.org
Clarification: Dallyn Vail Bayles will perform with Kurt Bestor and his band on Saturday, Dec. 16. An earlier version of this story had a mismatch of day and date.