Kenji Bunch

Composer and violist Kenji Bunch accompanies a reading of the book “Papa Brings me the World” by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw. The live-streamed performance was part of Musical Story Hour, a collaboration between the Moab Music Festival and the Grand County Public Library. [Courtesy Moab Music Festival]

In the wake of a toned-down, socially distanced festival in September, the Moab Music Festival had to get creative. “Despite limitations, we wanted to make sure we were covering all of our bases for local music education support during the pandemic,” said Erin Groves, community engagement director and assistant director of development for MMF.

Some of the festival’s annual programs could proceed as always, such as MMF’s scholarship fund for students wanting to attend music camps or private musical lessons, or their education initiative awards for local music educators. This year, education initiative awards helped teachers in the school district and at the charter school adapt their classes for distanced learning. Many submitted requests for recording equipment, microphones and amplification systems that would allow them to record musical lessons for students to access from home.

“All of those things can also be used by teachers in different ways to help with musical education after the pandemic,” Groves said.

But for most other programming, online was the answer. MMF put together three distinct digital projects that can all be found on the festival’s YouTube page.

First was a Performer’s Perspective exploring the work and contributions of classical composer, arranger and baritone Harry T. Burleigh. Burleigh played a significant role in integrating Black spirituals into mainstream classical music, taking music that had traditionally been passed down orally and writing it into a musical score. MFF Music Director Michael Barrett had originally programmed the live concert, titled “Songs of Faith and Belief,” for the festival’s 28th season, but then adapted the project to a digital platform.

Baritone vocalist Justin Austin from New York joined Barrett for the project, having performed a concert of spirituals for the 2020 Moab Music Festival. Barrett snipped from those previous recordings alongside additional performances, playing the piano underlying Austin’s rich, deep voice in “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired” and “Didn’t It Rain?” arranged by Harry T. Burleigh.

“These songs helped my ancestors get through some of the most troubling, trying times in history. I think that they might be able to help the world out right now,” said Austin. “I grew up with Black American spirituals and a lot of Burleigh’s compositions and arrangements that I didn’t know were Burleigh’s at the time….When I became a singer myself, I incorporated a lot of spirituals in my repertoire.”

MMF distributed the 15-minute video featuring Austin, Barrett and more information about Burleigh to Moab’s middle and high schools during Black History Month.

“This was our contribution to a musical aspect of Black History Month that was maybe a bit lesser-known,” Groves said.

Next, MMF solicited homemade videos from musicians far and wide for their Pandemic Video Project. 23 Moab artists, ranging from new beginners and young children to retirees and professionals, sent in iPhone clips of their work, showcasing their inspiration to make music in the midst of the pandemic.

“It was a much longer video than we anticipated. We were shocked to receive as many responses as we did,” said Groves.

Moab City Councilmember Mike Duncan, who writes many of his own songs with his guitar, was among those featured in the video. He performed an original song titled “At the End of the Day,” which explores what it has been like to make music alone in isolation over the past year.

MFF’s third digital adaptation this year is their Musical Story Hour, usually presented quarterly in conjunction with the Grand County Public Library. In any other year, 60 to 80 children and their parents gather at the library to hear a story read alongside the work of a local musician and their instrument.

“We've covered everything over the years from the didgeridoo to the trumpet and everything in between,” Groves said. “The challenge, of course, is that there's nothing quite as fun as just being together in person. That is something that I dearly miss — getting to connect with all of those young ones and seeing their interest in music getting stronger. I really look forward to when we can go back to that.”

The silver lining of digital Musical Story Hours, however, has been the opportunity to include a broader range of musicians from across the nation. The Library shared these online events with Moab elementary schools to use in their classrooms.

January’s session featured composer and violist Kenji Bunch from Oregon, who has received both a Bachelors and Masters in Viola and Composition from Julliard. Currently, he serves as the artistic director for Fear No Music, a music education nonprofit and teaches at Portland State University, Reed College and the Portland Youth Philharmonic. Joined by his two children, who are also musicians, the Bunch family performed alongside his narration of Papa Brings Me the World by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw from their living room.

Pianist Peter Dugan and mezzo-soprano Kara Dugan, a married couple from New York City, performed in April’s Musical Story Hour, where they accompanied My Friend Earth written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Francesca Sanna. Peter, the host of NPR’s From the Top, has performed around the world, but spends even more time visiting New York schools to encourage students to pursue music. Kara has performed as a baroque concert soloist in three international tours and was also educated at Julliard. They have performed together across the country.

From their New York apartment, the Dugans shared facts about the piano (each has 88 keys) and singing (the definition of a mezzo-soprano).

“Our January and April performers are in the middle of that lull that all musicians are currently struggling with. They're wanting to play music,” said Groves. “They would not normally ever have time to do a project of this size and scope, and to see them in their own homes connects you with them in a different way.”

Children and parents who enjoyed the January Musical Story Hour will have the opportunity to see Bunch live in concert at the 2021 Moab Music Festival as MMF’s Composer-in-Residence. The Dugans have also performed at the festival in the past.

Looking forward to life post-pandemic, Groves hopes to be able to once again offer in-person school assemblies and a more robust annual festival.

“We're still going to be really careful with a lot of protocol in place — social distancing, handwashing and masks are built into the structure of our events,” she said. “People are getting vaccinated, and we hope to also have a really robust year in 2022 for our 30th season.”

Though stages have been closed and masks have hindered singing voices, MMF’s devotion to music education has not waned since the pandemic began.

“I think it's easy to assume the worst — that all venues have been shuttered. But we’ve been working hard to produce as much as we can. And it's all because we just really care about the Moab community,” said Groves. “We want to connect the talent that is out there in the world with our own young students who are really excited and energized to learn about and perform music.”