Slickrock be damned—the Moab Music Festival showcases southern Utah's spectacular canyonlands in ways mountain biking never could.
A lazy breeze sighs through the red-rock hollow, skimming the curves of the towering walls. Except for the babbling Colorado River, not 50 yards away, silence envelops the grotto. Then a faint melody unfolds from a place unseen: It's a single clarinet—lonely, enchanting, pure. The musician strolls out from his secret spot, captivating the audience sprawled on low rock ledges and folding chairs. Under an azure afternoon sky, the grotto feels otherworldly—and a glossy grand piano resting on the canyon floor only adds to the surreal atmosphere.
The grotto show, otherwise known as the Colorado River Benefit Concert, is the signature event of the Moab Music Festival—what those in the know call Moab's best-kept secret. Until now, my definition of "music festival" had included college-age throngs with tents and keg cups, and bobbing and reeling to multiband jam sessions. But Moab's two-weekend celebration (September 3-14) offers a more, shall we say, sophisticated exhibition of musical talent. Although I don't know Tchaikovsky from Brahms, the beauty of this festival is that I don't have to. It's about what you feel when the music starts, not about what you know. The combination of music—whether it's chamber music or a jazz ensemble—set against the canyonlands background is, in a word, stirring.
For 17 years, the Moab Music Festival has been drawing top talent to the Moab area. Every year, the founders—two New York City-based musicians—recruit world-class musicians to perform in a variety of venues throughout Utah's canyon country. Festivalgoers can make their own itineraries: Friday afternoon might offer a quartet in a secluded amphitheater, while Saturday's agenda could include a lavish white-tent concert on a Moab ranch. But every performance reflects the festival's mission: "Music in concert with the landscape."
Nowhere is this philosophy more apparent than the grotto show. As a first-timer, I can't help feeling as if I've discovered the keys to some magic kingdom, tucked away in a bend of the Colorado River. We arrive at the grotto via motorized, covered boats, which carry about 60 passengers on a scenic 40-minute trip down the river to a point so hidden that some boating companies float right past it. Carved by millions of years of river currents, the grotto is an amphitheater of unrivaled acoustics. After the 90-minute concert, we mingle with the performers and enjoy a catered lunch before boarding the fleet for the upriver journey back to Moab. Along the sheer canyon walls are geological points of interest and landmarks such as Dead Horse Point, which, at 2,000 feet up, is one of the most awe-inspiring overlooks in the world (and, film fans, the site of the fateful last moments of Thelma and Louise).
After disembarking, many festivalgoers head back toward town to regroup before the night's activities—Moab's status as Utah's adventure capital ensures hotels, motels, and campgrounds galore—but the 17-mile drive to the Sorrel River Ranch, my headquarters for the weekend, is worth it for scenic value and a little bit of luxury (think 400-thread-count linens and a heavenly river-stone massage at the on-site spa). From Moab, Scenic Byway 128 winds along the Colorado River toward the ranch, snaking through canyons that form striking silhouettes and provide days worth of hiking opportunities. Situated across from the iconic Castle Rock formation, the ranch is a postcard-perfect oasis of lush green grounds sprawled between sunburned red rock and the river.
Not only is the Sorrel River Ranch a great spot to unwind, it's also one of the festival venues. Amid the manicured lawns, a covered outdoor pavilion hosts everything from benefit concerts (which support the festival's education and community programs) to special memorial shows. Performances at the ranch are mesmerizing, set against the backdrop of Castle Rock in the waning afternoon sun. When the applause dies down, head to the Sorrel River Grill (make reservations beforehand) for gourmet ranch fare; choose from entrées like medallions of lamb with butternut squash or grilled pheasant with huckleberry barbecue sauce. Make sure to sit on the balcony for picturesque views of the river.
Besides the grotto and the ranch, there are other striking open-air venues, and if you're lucky Onion Creek will be in the lineup. A few miles northeast of the ranch, the turnoff from Highway 128 is a graded dirt road that winds through a painted desert fit for the backdrop of any classic Western flick. In the shadow of the majestic Fisher Towers—red rock formations that break the horizon at nearly 900 feet tall—I find a seat under the festival tent. As dusk sets in, poignant melodies from the piano and string quintet become the soundtrack to a world-class sunset. During a well-timed intermission, I scramble up an outcropping to watch the fiery sun sink below the red-rock silhouettes in an array of pinks and violets that linger like the notes of the last sonata.
While most events are set outside, the festival typically hosts at least one performance, often an opera, at Moab's historic Star Hall, built more than a century ago when Moab was a frontier mining town. And each year the festival brings new surprises, like the popular musical walks, where guests are shuttled to a secret location for an unusual hike-concert combo. Similarly, the house benefit concerts unfold in different Moab-area residences every year, hosted by locals who open their homes for intimate evenings of cocktails and chamber music.
Though festival nights are usually booked with such affairs, I manage to squeeze in some time to explore the countryside around us—which is, of course, half the reason I'm here. Between daytime events, I find my way to Arches and Canyonlands national parks for the unparalleled—almost unbelievable—scenery for which Moab is known. Feeling sacrilegious without a mountain bike in tow, I embark on a short hike to what seems like the end of the world in Canyonlands, and just about wear down my camera battery when I reach a massive, jutting overlook to the river below. It's here that I take a minute to reflect on the landscape and think about how I would never have thought to stage a classical music festival here. After all, this rugged, unforgiving terrain isn't what you might call classically beautiful. Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Julie Dugdale is an associate editor for 5280. E-mail her at email@example.com.