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Music was always R. Carlos Nakai's career goal, but as a high-school trumpet player he never guessed that his American Indian heritage would be the key to making it happen.

Nakai, 64, thrived playing in the band while growing up in Poston, Ariz. He planned on attending music school, then performing with military bands. Those dreams died when a car accident ruined his embouchure — the way a musician uses facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to an instrument's mouthpiece to produce tone.

"I couldn't play as I had before," Nakai said. "That's when I found that the Native American flute could fulfill that missing area of my life."

The cedar flute that Nakai learned to play is an indigenous instrument of the Plains tribes of North America, not a focus of his Navajo/Ute heritage. Its haunting sound captivated him, though, and he mastered the instrument, becoming the world's premier American Indian flutist.

Nakai made his first album in 1983 and went on to make 35 more, winning four Grammy nominations and two gold records. Besides bringing traditional cedar flute music to a broad audience, he loves to extend the instrument's boundaries into the worlds of jazz, classical and ethnic music.

He has performed with ensembles all over the world and inspired composers such as Philip Glass and James DeMars to write music for him.

The American Indian flute has a one-octave range and is built on a scale similar to the Aeolian mode of Western European music. Its hollow, plaintive sound suggests rugged country and open spaces.

"There are limitations imposed by being able to work in one 12-tone range," Nakai said. "It challenges the performer to use all of their skills and brings into play all of the capabilities one learns over time about composing and arranging."

Nakai will solo with the University of Utah Philharmonia on Thursday, Feb. 24, playing James DeMars' 1993 "Two Worlds Concerto." The piece integrates traditional music of the Plains peoples with elements of contemporary classical music.

University of Utah director of orchestral activities Robert Baldwin, who will conduct this week's concert, has admired Nakai's music since the 1980s. He invited Nakai to be a guest soloist for a Philharmonia concert featuring the many facets of American music.

He describes "Two Worlds Concerto" as "a tone poem for orchestra, with native flute obbligato." The music's picturesque quality is suggested by movement titles such as "Spirit Call" and "Lake That Speaks."

"The composer uses all of the colors of traditional music and augments that with very unique percussion sounds," Baldwin said. "Tibetan singing bowls and vibraphone give a really ethereal quality to the music."

Nakai added: "Much of the conversation that is held in the piece deals with the essential quality of all of us being human and having experiences in our journey through time that are not much different from anyone else's."

'Through an American Lens'

P The University of Utah Philharmonia presents a concert featuring the U.'s premier orchestra and American Indian flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Nakai joins the orchestra for James DeMars' "Two Worlds Concerto" under the baton of Robert Baldwin. Works of Aaron Copland and John Adams are also on the program.

When • Thursday, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m.

Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $7; $3 for students and seniors; at 801-581-7100 or