Music on the Rocks

The Moab Music Festival Is a Feast for the Senses

Using the landscape as inspiration, the annual gathering gives audiences a one-of-a-kind listening experience.

By Cindy Hirschfeld July 26, 2018 Published in the Midsummer/Fall 2018 issue of Aspen Sojourner

Violinist Tessa Lark performs in Moab. 

I turn down a dirt road off Highway 128, the serpentine Scenic Byway along the Colorado River that ends in Moab, Utah. Eroded red sandstone cliffs jut out of the landscape; a rock formation known as the Priest and Nuns looms on the right. It’s the kind of road I’ve traveled for years here on my way to mountain-biking trails.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m standing on a shaded patio, sipping a glass of rosé and chatting with virtuoso jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, the evening’s performer, and Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard). Later on, about 75 of us gather in a ranch house living room as Roberts sits at the Steinway grand to play a program of some of his own compositions, as well as works by Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. I listen, rapt, from about 20 feet away. He ends with a majestic performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” After the concert, we all feast alfresco on an outstanding farm-to-table dinner.

Living in Aspen, I’ve enjoyed access to a remarkable slate of cultural experiences, but the Moab Music Festival is something else. Held annually from late August through early September, it offers 20 classical,
jazz, and Americana concerts in incredible settings—a riverside grotto, a hike-to meadow, a stunning private home—with unparalleled intimacy. (Not to mention: the ticket for the Roberts evening, cocktail party and dinner included, was $250—a relative steal compared to prices in Aspen.)

New Yorkers Michael Barrett (he’s a conductor and pianist) and Leslie Tomkins (she’s a violist) started the festival in 1993, a time when Moab’s economy was transitioning from uranium mining to outdoor recreation. The couple had discovered the town a couple of years prior, as they were also thinking about forming their own music fest. “There was a perfect moment, when we were sitting at Arches National Park, watching a thunderstorm on the horizon, and a double rainbow appeared,” recalls Barrett. “Leslie said, ‘Let’s make the music festival here.’”

From the outset, Moab’s striking natural landscape has been a fest hallmark. “What makes us so unique is how we’ve been able to marry beautiful music-making with these extraordinary places,” says Barrett.

While a handful of concerts take place inside the historic Star Hall, most are held outside, some in local parks or at riverside guest lodges. More-intrepid concertgoers head out with a naturalist guide on half-hour hikes to a wilderness venue where the musicians play. Most inspired are the three afternoon concerts held in a tucked-away grotto along the Colorado. And a pair of multiday guided raft trips bookend the schedule, complete with performers (and their carefully packed instruments) on board.

The breadth of artists matches the range of venues. Barrett brings in leading musicians he knows personally. “Whether they’re a fiddle player or a classical pianist or a Latin trumpet player, these people are at the tippy top of their fields,” he says. This year’s performances, for example, include vocal group Take 6; an evening of Beethoven and Chopin; traditional fiddle music; and Tony Award-nominated soprano Lauren Worsham with pianist Kyle Jarrow (he wrote the book for Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants).

A grotto concert

The day after the Marcus Roberts concert, I board a modified school bus for the drive to the river, where we take jet boats to a sandstone grotto for an all-Bach program. After a mellow 40-minute ride, we disembark and walk through a leafy tunnel before popping out into the grotto. About 100 folding chairs are set up on the sand floor, as well as, improbably, a grand piano. Striated rock walls embrace the venue, soaring some 200 feet above. “It’s like a holy site for me,” says Barrett. “I want the concerts here to be extra special.”

Like all of the grotto performances, this one begins with a full minute of silence before the music commences. As a pianist and flautist play Bach’s Sonata in B Minor, the purity of sound within the natural amphitheater is nothing short of astonishing. When the audience claps, the gentle noise is like raindrops pitter-pattering onto the desert floor.

At the post-concert reception, I ask violinist Ayano Ninomiya what it’s like to play in this unusual setting. “It’s so still that you can hear every little thing—it makes you listen better,” she says, before adding, “It’s so magical here. There’s nothing like it.”

Updated for 2019: This year's Moab Music Festival takes place August 26-September 12. Tickets for single performances range from free to $350. For lodging away from from the hubbub of town, consider a suite or cabin at Red Cliffs Lodge (there's a winery on-site too) or the luxury Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa; both properties will also host a Music Fest concert. In Moab proper, the Aarchway Inn offers comfortable motel rooms along with a large pool and landscaped grounds. 

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