Great American Road Trip
There is a sort of elevation that comes with hearing fresh music paired with the outdoors, says Tauna Allan, a resident of Vernal who experienced one of the Utah Symphony’s three full-orchestra concerts presented during its Great American Road Trip tour this summer. With more than 2,300 people in attendance, the Vernal concert was the best attended of the week-long, 1,700-mile tour to Utah’s rural communities.
“It was amazing, especially to watch the conductor,” Allan says. “It’s like [Music Director Thierry Fishcer] was making music with his movements against the backdrop of Split Mountain. The symphony gave more value to the environment we already love. It’s acoustic beauty. We were thrilled that they came.”
For many rural residents, the free concerts were the first time they’d heard the 85-member Utah Symphony. Much like its Mighty 5 trip to Utah’s five national parks in 2014, the symphony ventured to regions for performances near or inside state and national parks to connect with communities.
Dramatic Interpretations of Music Set Against Dramatic Landscapes
In Springdale, the orchestra performed near the stunning cliffs and canyon walls of Zion National Park. Next, the symphony traveled to the southeastern part of the state to Bluff, established in the 19th century by the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition near Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. The symphony ended its tour in Vernal at Dinosaur National Monument near the famed quarry showcasing partially exposed dinosaur fossils.
Smaller chamber concerts took place at the brightly colored Cedar Breaks National Monument, in the city of Vernal in the Uintah Basin and above the field of orangey mushrooms known as Goblin Valley State Park. In keeping with the Great American Road Trip theme, musical selections focused on American composers including Charles Ives, according to Jeff Luke, associate principal trumpet of the Utah Symphony.
Fischer said he was thrilled to be in the middle of the spectacular nature and scenery that Utah provides. “It’s a real inspiration, which resonates within us,” he says.
The Universal Language of Music
Fischer says it’s crucial that symphony members connect with different communities in the state. “We learn so much from interacting with others,” he says. “Music is a universal language, and when you have this language in the middle of universal beauty, the two energies match, creating unforgettable moments for us performers and for the audience.”
As part of the concert program, composer Brent Michael Davids’ “Spirit Woman Song” was performed by soprano Abigail Rethwisch with accompaniment by the symphony. While the aria is part of an opera that was never completed, it tells the story of a Native American tribe being forcibly removed. “It’s a Trail of Tears kind of scenario in which I felt like the land needed to have a voice,” Davids says. “So, we created this character, this spirit woman, who is actually singing what the land sees. This song is her lament about the natives being removed and how she cares for them.”
Dan Johnson, chief of interpretation and education for the National Park Service at Dinosaur National Monument, believes the symphony’s concert was a great opportunity for visitors to experience the monument in a different way. “Everyone thinks our mission is only to preserve and protect both the natural and cultural resources, but another part of that mission is to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery,” he says. “The symphony helped us provide that enjoyment. Our public lands have been an inspiration for photographers, painters, sculptors, composers and musicians.”
The mission of the Utah Symphony is to bring the thrill of live orchestral music to all parts of the state, says Paul Meecham, CEO and president of the orchestra. At the Bluff concert at Camp Stickie-Ta-Tudy, Meecham told a crowd of 1,300 concertgoers, “It’s our mission to come to you. We want to bring music to you and your students.”
As part of the symphony’s education outreach, the orchestra performs more than 200 concerts to inspire approximately 150,000 students annually statewide. In keeping with that goal, the symphony presented a woodwind trio at elementary schools during each of the concert stops and discussed rhythm, tempo, timbre and tone with the students along with a team of educators from the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Sounds of Nature
Also a statewide organization, The Natural History Museum of Utah joined the tour as the education partner to present at school assemblies and engage members of communities through outreach activities.
The museum staff members encouraged students to listen carefully to nature and to discover the surprising source of some natural sounds. “The natural world is filled with an amazing variety of sound that can enrich our lives, if we just take a moment to listen,” says Ann Hanniball, associate director for community relations for the museum.
Museum staff also brought selected pieces from its collection of 1.6 million objects — many made by the indigenous people of each of the areas where the symphony performed. For example, in Bluff, the museum displayed contemporary Navajo baskets made by area weavers, traditional Paiute baskets and Ute objects. In Vernal, which is located in the ancestral homeland of the Utes, the museum shared a large selection of Ute objects.
To enhance the tour experience, concertgoers were also treated to star parties since tour stops were near accredited or aspiring dark skies parks, which allow unaltered viewing of the night skies. Representatives from the International Dark Skies Association, the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah, the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, the National Parks Conservation Association and local astronomy groups were on hand to educate attendees.
“Natural landscapes, including natural nightscapes and natural darkness, inspire art, including symphonic music and creativity,” says Bettymaya Foott, coordinator of Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative. “It’s really great to see an important musical organization like the Utah Symphony realize the importance of dark skies for everyone in Utah and beyond.”
“Our partnerships with the Natural History Museum of Utah and Consortium of Dark Skies help the symphony to extend its reach and bring together music, the land, ancient culture and the natural beauty of the sky,” Meecham says. “This sets a new bar for future tours around the state.”
Photos by Kevin Kiernan and Ethan Kiernan.