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The first time Jamie Bernstein saw Moab was about four decades ago, while she was on a solo road trip around the nation during her college years on a personal quest, or walkabout. That was in the days before Moab had all the trappings of a busy tourist magnet.
"It was the sleepiest little town," recalled the daughter of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. "There was nothing there except all of that natural beauty, and I fell in love with the place."
The trip convinced her that the Four Corners area was her "favorite place on Earth," said Bernstein, speaking with a fervency familiar to anyone who saw the 1960s television broadcasts in which her father explained and extolled classical music to young audiences.
Jamie Bernstein was surprised and delighted when her friends Leslie Tomkins and Michael Barrett started a chamber-music festival in Moab in 1992, providing her a perfect excuse for annual pilgrimages to recharge her spiritual batteries. She has attended 17 of the Moab Music Festival's past 19 seasons, often as a participant.
Barrett, who is general director of New York's Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, has known Jamie Bernstein since his days as a conducting protégé of her multitalented father, the most successful and famous musician the United States has produced.
Since Leonard Bernstein's death in 1990, Barrett and Jamie Bernstein have often collaborated for performances celebrating the legacy of her dad and his mentor usually with Bernstein as narrator and Barrett as conductor.
This year, the two are teaming up for one of their biggest projects to date: a performance of Leonard Bernstein's short opera "Trouble in Tahiti," with Barrett holding the baton and Jamie Bernstein as stage director. Other music by Leonard Bernstein fills out the Sept. 9 concert at Moab's Star Hall, including classical chamber music, modern opera, show tunes and jazz.
"His music covers an unbelievably broad spectrum that's so much of what my dad was about," Bernstein said. "He could write in so many different genres and make bridges from one to another."
"Trouble in Tahiti" is set in a tidy American suburb during the economic boom that followed World War II. Behind a façade of contentment and success, Sam and Dinah's marriage is disintegrating into emptiness and mutual recrimination. Ironically, the opera was written during the honeymoon of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealagre, Jamie's mother.
In the opera, Sam and Dinah's percussive, sometimes-dissonant musical exchanges are interspersed with commentary on the action from a jazz trio, sung in the upbeat style of 1950s radio jingles. The plot has Sam immersing himself in his career and sports club, as Dinah gets away from suburban boredom by attending a frothy movie, "Trouble in Tahiti," then fantasizes about an exotic escape.
"Dad wanted to use the English language that people actually speak in this opera," Bernstein said. "In the opening scene, there is a breakfast squabble where they are talking on top of each other's sentences. It's just brilliant the way he pulls it off."
The couple don't solve their relationship problems during the opera's one-hour span. Instead, they invest themselves further in the outward appearance of happiness.
Bernstein confirmed speculation that her father's model for the central couple's rocky marriage was the marriage of his parents, Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants Sam and Jennie Bernstein.
"Yes, indeed he talked about it," she said. "I think he was somehow trying to process his parents' relationship as he was about to embark on his own marriage. His parents bickered all the time, and it was awful for him to live through."
In 2011, Bernstein directed "Trouble in Tahiti" for New York's Stony Brook Opera at the invitation of a friend. Though she is known as an author, lecturer, narrator and broadcaster, she relished the chance to direct her first stage production. Directing her father's opera became a moving experience.
"Sitting out there in the darkened house watching the action on the stage, I started to cry," Bernstein said. "I realized I'd never had so much fun in my whole life. I'm thrilled that I get to do this again. When Michael and I collaborate on putting together concerts of Dad's music, it's always a wonderful way of keeping him alive for both of us."
Barrett said the production of "Trouble in Tahiti" caused him to bring together the largest group of instrumentalists the Moab Music Festival has ever presented. He's taking advantage of that fact with a Sept. 8 performance of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" for 13 instruments. Other large-ensemble chamber pieces will be heard throughout the festival's run, drawing upon the talents of a mix of seasoned festival regulars and some newcomers.
As always, the spectacular redrock scenery of the Moab area will be integral to the experience, Barrett said. The lineup includes outdoor concerts at Sorrel River Ranch and Cliff Lodge, hikes to undisclosed concert locations, and benefit concerts in a stone grotto reached by a jet-boat trip down the Colorado River.
That's a good thing for Jamie Bernstein and others who view their annual trips to Moab Music Festival as a form of sacred renewal.
"I'm not a churchgoing person," she said, "but I'm pretty sure the way I feel about the concert in the grotto is how people feel when they go to their house of worship."
Music in a redrock backdrop
The Moab Music Festival, under the direction of Michael Barrett and Leslie Tomkins, celebrates its 20th anniversary Aug. 29 to Sept. 10. Featured artists include banjoist Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio, the EarRegulars, members of University of Utah Lyric Theatre, folk musician Christopher Layer, stage director Jamie Bernstein and about 30 professional chamber musicians, most based in New York.
Concert venues include Moab's historic Star Hall and Old City Park, Sorrel River Ranch, Red Cliffs Lodge and a natural stone grotto on the Colorado River. Here's the lineup:
Wednesday, Aug. 29 • Piano talk with Paul Hersh; Star Hall; 7 p.m.; $15.
Thursday, Aug. 30 • Grotto concert I; Colorado River grotto accessed by jet-boat; noon; $300 (benefit).
Friday, Aug. 31 • Festival Opening Night; Star Hall; 7 p.m.; $25.
Saturday Sept. 1 • Festival Virtuosi; Red Cliffs Lodge; $30
Sunday, Sept. 2 • Classical Music hike; 9 a.m.; shuttle to secret location; $60
Sunday, Sept. 2 • Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio; Red Cliffs Lodge; 6 p.m.; $30.
Monday, Sept. 3 • Family Picnic Concert; Old City Park; 2 p.m.; free.
Tuesday, Sept. 4 • Ranch Benefit concert; shuttle to ranch along Colorado River; $95.
Thursday, Sept. 6 • Grotto concert II; Colorado River grotto accessed by jet-boat: noon; $300 (benefit).
Friday, Sept. 7 • Chamber music; Sorrel River Ranch; $30; $5.
Saturday, Sept. 8 • America, Three Generations; Sorrel River Ranch; 6 p.m.; $30.
Sunday, Sept. 9 • Music hike; 9 a.m.; shuttle to secret location; $60.
Sunday, Sept. 9 • Music of Leonard Bernstein; Star Hall; 7 p.m.; $25.
Monday, Sept. 10 • Grotto concert III; noon; Colorado River grotto accessed by jet-boat; $300 (benefit).
Also • Student tickets for $5 are available for many of the concerts. Admission includes shuttles to concert locations in some cases. Discount ticket packages are available. For tickets, details about pricing, venue locations, musical selections and artist roster, call 435-259-7003 or visit http://www.moabmusicfest.org.