Creative people take their inspiration where they find it. For Kurt Bestor, it came while stripping wallpaper.
Bestor and his wife, Petrina, have purchased the historic John and Eliza Gray Rumel house in downtown Salt Lake City and are in the process of restoring it as a local office for Petrina's company. (Her family runs a safari service in Kenya).
For the past couple of months, Kurt Bestor has stripped off layers and layers of old wallpaper. "For the last couple of months that's where all my ideas have come from," he says.
When a lot of people think of great old things, they don't think of Utah, Bestor says, "but this house proves them wrong. It's a great old house. It's a work of art."
That got him thinking about other arts. "If we want great arts, we don't always have to look outside Utah. We have great talent here. We can focus locally."
And that's what he will do for his annual Christmas concert, which takes place Wednesday through Dec. 8 in Abravanel Hall. "In the past I've brought in some groovy guest stars from other parts of the country. Debbie Gibson, last year, was a lot of fun. And I may do that again. But this year, I really want to highlight our local talent. This year, in honor of this old house, I want to be Utah-centric."
And so, as he pulled off wallpaper and removed old linoleum, he came up with the idea of a statewide talent search. When he wasn't working on the house, Bestor held open auditions from Logan to St. George as part of "Bestor's Best of Utah Singer Search."
It was a bit of a risk, he admits, but it turned out better than he ever dreamed. "I expected maybe 25-30 people at each site. We got 150 in St. George and 130 in Provo."
He listened to them all, "and I heard some great talent. It was the opposite of not finding someone. It was, how can I ever choose?" Applicants ranged from a 6-year-old girl to an 80-year-old gentleman, singing everything from country-western to Broadway to "American Idol"-style pop.
The winner, Erica Richardson, is a theater major at the University of Utah. She will not only sing a specially arranged song at the Christmas concert but also receives a trip to meet recording executives in Los Angeles.
That's not the only local talent that will be featured at the concert, however. "Is anyone better at woodwinds than Daron Bradford?" Bestor asked. "He's been with me from the beginning this will be my 19th Christmas concert, and he's so amazing. So, I've written a Woodwind Concerto for 20 woodwind instruments that will all be played by one guy."
Then there's Sam Bigney, who has played with Kirkmount. "He's one of the best fiddle players in the whole country. So, we're going to do a Cape Breton-style version of 'Ding Dong Merrily on High.' I taught myself how to play the bodhran (an Irish drum) for that."
The Salt Lake Children's Choir will also appear.
The concert will include the traditional mix of old and new songs and features. The audience has come to expect certain things, he says, but they also want something different. The good thing about Christmas music is that "it never gets old. Great art all great art is meant to last."
Which brings him back to the Rumel house. "I have a lot of respect for Mr. Rumel and how he built this house. You can tell he cared about quality craftsmanship."
The two-story house was built in 1886 and is considered Greek Revival in style. Another thing that's unusual about it is that it remained in the family until a great-great-granddaughter, Jean Woolley Poulsen, died in 2006. There has been some remodeling over the years, but not a lot.
When the Rumel house was built, it was in a residential neighborhood, and it even had a little street named for it. But the world changed around the house. Commercial development on all sides has made it less desirable as a residence, although it is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by a Utah Heritage Foundation Preservation Easement.
So, restoring the house and turning it into an office is an ideal use, Bestor says. "I'm happy that we can keep a place like this." It says too much about an earlier age and what was important then, he said. Plus, "it's been a lot of fun. I've been having a ball here." Bestor said he loves the arched entryways, the high ceilings and old transoms over the doors, the molding that has been so carefully attached, the coal chute out back.
Stripping wallpaper has been cathartic, he says, not to mention inspiring. "This house really has been my muse this year."
One thing his mind has turned to as he has peeled away the layers of the past has been music of the past, and a performance of George Frederic Handel's music that he heard in England a few years ago. "As I sat there, it occurred to me that I was hearing music just as alive as it was 300 years ago, just as alive as it came out of Handel's brain. As a composer, that's a stunning thought."
The legacy of the arts is a fun subject to ponder as he works on the house, he says. When he works there alone, there are times when he can almost hear the laughter of children, smell the pies cooking in the old stove. "And I think how timeless it all seems."
What: A Kurt Bestor Christmas
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
When: Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 7 and 8, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinee, 2 p.m.
How much: $17.50-37.50
E-mail: [email protected]