Twenty-six years ago, Michael Barrett and his wife Leslie Tomkins were considering the idea of starting a music festival in northern Utah. The two had familial connections in the northern part of the state, and they believed it would be a good fit. However, their plans changed after a trip to Moab.
Barrett had visited the area previously, and something about the town had stuck with him. When he brought Tomkins to visit, she suggested starting a music festival here instead.
“Moab was kind of quiet in those days,” Barrett said. “There wasn’t even a movie theater. KZMU was in a tiny little trailer. It was just us and the mice running around.”
The couple decided to give it a shot, launching the now renowned Moab Music Festival from a tiny office in the Uranium Building.
“I didn’t have a desk,” Barrett said. “But we had a copier.”
At the time, Moab was just starting to steer itself toward a tourism-based economy.
“We knew the town would grow,” Barrett said. “We decided we would start modestly and grow with it.”
The festival started small, with only five events. However, after more than two decades it’s grown to encompass approximately 20 different events, including music hikes, a musical raft trip, a residency program and educational programs for local students.
“It’s really been organic,” Barrett said. “It’s a mom and pop operation. Every year we grew a little bit.”
“If you look at other ... festivals, we really are unique,” MMF Executive Director Laura Brown said. “The festival runs a total of 15 days if you include the raft trip.”
Barrett said they’ve worked hard to provide the best possible experience for festival patrons.
“We like to say we run a million dollar festival for half a million,” he said. “It takes a lot of donations from the community. It takes the whole town to make it happen.”
Although the festival began with a concentration on classical music, it has, over the years, featured a variety of other musical genres. Barrett said this year is going to include some “unique” offerings.
“I try not to repeat myself too much,” he said. “I’ve always loved Latin music ... and this year, I wanted to do something a little unique.”
The first week of festival concerts will showcase a heavy Latin influence, including performances highlighting Paraguay, Cuba and Brazil.
“Every single country has its own unique culture, music and dances,” Barrett said.
In the past, performances have started on Friday. However, this year, Barrett said they were able to schedule a one-of-a-kind performance that had to be held Thursday night, Sept. 1. The Schubert/Beatles concert will feature music by the Beatles — mainly John Lennon and Paul McCartney — interspersed with the works of classical composer Franz Schubert. The concert will be held at Star Hall, 125 E. Center St., at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30.
“It’s a program we originally did in New York,” Barrett said. “It was so magical ... We wanted to figure out how to bring it here.”
The Latin-inspired concerts will begin Friday, Sept. 2, with Spanish Gold at Star Hall. Barrett said the concert will showcase Spanish classical music. “In the middle of it is always the guitar,” he said.
Berta Rojas, a Paraguyan guitar player, will be accompanied by piano, violins and cellos.
“It’s a celebration of the music of the 19th and early 20th century in Spain,” Barrett said.
On Saturday, Sept. 3, after the first musical hike of the festival, the Paquito D’Rivera Ensemble will continue the Latin theme at Red Cliffs Lodge, bringing with them the music of Cuba.
“Cuba has some of the hottest music,” Barrett said. “It’s so rhythmically complicated and fun.”
A Cuban exile, D’Rivera has had a significant influence on Latin music in the United States.
Barrett said that D’Rivera has played the Moab festival several times in the past, but not in the last few years.
“I think we’ll have some pent-up expectations from his fans,” he said.
That concert will take place at Red Cliffs Lodge at 6 p.m.
In addition to lawn seating at Red Cliffs, for which tickets are $30, there will also be tent seating for $40, Brown said.
“If you buy a tent seat, you’re guaranteed a chair,” she said. “If you buy lawn seating, it’s pick your own spot. There are no chairs provided.”
Red Cliffs will host another concert on Sunday evening, Sept. 4. Clarice Assad, a Brazilian composer, singer and pianist will perform with the instrumental group Off the Cliff.
“Clarice really is a triple threat,” Barrett said.
An ensemble of string players will join Assad for the second half of the concert. “Those are such fun concerts,” Brown said.
On Monday, Sept. 5, the group will host it’s annual free concert at Old City Park. The concert, “Sonidos Latinos,” will feature performances from Rojas, D’Rivera and Assad.
“Anyone who feels like they can’t afford tickets or they’re too busy working, will have a chance to see all of the artists during that concert,” Brown said. The concert begins at 2 p.m.
While tickets for some events, including the Cataract Musical Raft Trip, the festival’s signature grotto concerts and the Ranch Benefit Concert, are already sold out, Brown said tickets are still available for most of the weekend concerts. Student tickets are available for $5 for many of the concerts. Tickets for next year’s raft trip and grotto concerts will go on sale Sept. 1. Brown said those events sell out quickly. Tickets for everything else will be available starting in April 2017.
Tickets may be purchased through the festival’s website: www.moabmusicfest.org, or at the festival office, 58 East 300 South in Moab. For more information, call the festival office at 435-259-7003.