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Moab Music Festival draws fans to Utah’s ethereal desert

For the past 26 years, the Moab Music Festival has been attracting fans from around the world for some of the most unique performances of classical and chamber music. During three weeks in September, the southwestern town, located near Arches National Park, hosts performances in town halls, ranches and the middle of Utah's ethereal desert landscape. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    The hike to the Middle Earth Waterfall just outside of Moab, Utah is part-limbo, part balancing act – a half an hour spent ducking under branches and sliding alongside carved rock faces.

    But the challenge is worth it … the destination a dead end of polished red rock, that is nothing short of spectacular

    For years, MOAB'S ethereal desert landscape has served as a Hollywood backdrop and playground for outdoor enthusiasts,

    But today, the walls of stone will serve as one of the most breathtaking amphitheaters in the world.

  • Michael Barrett:

    One of the most important things for me is the silence.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Michael Barett is co-founder & music director of the Moab Music Festival.

  • Michael Barrett:

    If you get far out into the wilderness, you have a kind of silence that we just never get to experience in our modern lives and to have music come out of silence and to break the silence is– it's enough to make you weep.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For the past 26-years, the Moab Music Festival has been using Utah's layered rock formations as a stage for music from Brahms, Bach and today, Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng.

  • Bright Sheng:

    The first one is called four seasons.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Performed by celloist Clancy Newman, Bright Sheng's composition Seven Tunes Heard in China was originally written for cello virtuoso Yo Yo Ma in 1995. It originates, Sheng says, from his teenage years spent in the sweeping plains of Tibet during Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution.

  • Bright Sheng:

    When I was in Tibet, I could never imagine this day. It reminded me of my youth. And many of my compositions were inspired by the folk music and the environment of the open air environment and– when I hear it every time, when it's performed right, my heart pumps.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The night before, Sheng's Hot Pepper for Violin and Marimba kicked-off opening night at Moab's Star Hall, a tiny performance space in downtown Moab. Part of the thematic bookends of this year's festival, the program – called New Americans – was a night dedicated to composers, who like Sheng, had immigrated to the United States and become American citizens.

  • Michael Barrett:

    It's looking at their music, how they've interpreted their own American experience, what their musical voices are. Have they taken from their home countries, and somehow integrated that into their American lives?

  • Christopher Booker:

    This year's theme vividly reflects what is going on around the country….. The day before the festival's opening, the Moab's Times-Independent newspaper ran two stories on its front page. Above the masthead a story about the Moab Music Festival's celebration of "New Americans" and below, a story about local panic following recent ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Coming back to the development of this year's theme, was there any worry about getting political?

  • Michael Baerrett:

    I have to be careful about that because it is easy to let your own political convictions overwhelm the program, but when we play chamber music, we talk about it as having a conversation. Conversation with the audience, conversation musician to musician. Lot of people are really dug in right now. And I think we need more grey area in our belief system right now and more tolerance.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you feel like you're part of– a broader conversation that's taking place within America? And– and if so, how do you think music– contributes to that conversation?

  • Bright Sheng:

    As you see for tonight's opening concerts, there are composers from very different backgrounds some of them migrants like me. And– so we– I think it's– it's part of this great texture that makes the fabric of American art and American culture unique and and distinctive and I'm very proud to be part of it.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But in locations like Middle Earth, the landscape, the sky, all of the elements of Moab's wonder create something far more than a conversation. Something Moab Music Festival Artistic-Director and Viola player Leslie Tomkins says can be difficult to explain.

  • Leslie Tomkins:

    Even in photographs– in — video just– the– you miss one entire dimension of it, which is hard to describe, but that makes it such a complete experience to be surrounded by this other-worldly landscape.

  • Michael Barrett:

    It's like a– s– a spiritual home that music can live in, and then when it becomes expressed, when it gets off the page and a musician brings it to life, acoustically it's– I don't know, it's extraordinary.

  • Bright Sheng:

    What is the arts in society? What's the function of arts? Art has to touch the audience, to touch the people. Maybe not the entire time, but a certain moment of your composition. There are moments that the audience should be moved– ideally moved to tears, but if not tears, but they moved. And if that made them forget about their existence even for a few seconds, and you succeeded.

  • Michael Barett:

    So That's the beauty of- being able to examine aspects of life and living together, is that we agree on these things, on the beauty of music, and how to create it, and how to express it, and how to share it with our community.

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