SALT LAKE CITY — Bright Sheng saw Leonard Bernstein on the day the renowned conductor died. It was Oct. 14, 1990, and Bernstein had announced his retirement just a few days before.
Sheng was in New York for only a couple of days, but he was determined to see Bernstein. The composer/conductor had been his beloved mentor for five years, taking the young musician under his wing in the ’80s when he was “fresh off the boat from Shanghai.”
“I think he knew. Everybody around him knew that he was not going to last very long,” Sheng told the Deseret News. “For Leonard Bernstein not to conduct, that in itself (was) a big statement.”
Sheng called Bernstein’s home each day, hoping the assistant would tell him the conductor was feeling well enough to see him. His last attempt came around noon on Oct. 14, 1990, when the assistant told him a face-to-face visit would not be likely.
“I said, ‘That’s OK. I’m leaving, but I’ll come back in two weeks,’” Sheng recalled. He still remembers the long pause that followed as the assistant went to check in with Bernstein — and he’ll never forget the assistant’s reponse: “The maestro would like to see you at 4 today.”
“Bernstein knew,” he said. “He knew he probably wouldn’t last two weeks. And (the fact that) he cared about me and would see me, that was very touching.”
Bernstein died shortly after that meeting with Sheng, but his legacy lives on through his wide range of compositions that include works such as “Candide,” “Mass” and “West Side Story.” Saturday, Aug. 25, marks the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, and the Moab Music Festival, which runs Aug. 27-Sept. 13, is honoring the centennial by featuring programs from Sheng and Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest daughter.
‘Getting there is part of the fun’
Jamie Bernstein is looking forward to honoring her father’s legacy at this year’s festival, but that’s not the only reason she’s making the journey from New York to Moab. Since friends Michael Barrett — who studied conducting with her father in New York — and violist Leslie Tompkins founded the festival in 1992, Jamie Bernstein has only missed the event three times. And each time she returns to the red rocks of Moab, she’s reminded of her first trip to Utah in the 1970s, when she took a break from the monotony of a cross-country road trip to hike Monument Valley.
“I thought it was the most magical place I'd ever been in,” she recalled. “Later in the ’90s, after my father died, (my friends) started the Moab Music Festival and I couldn't believe my good fortune because now I had this built-in excuse to go to that part of the world as often as I possibly could, to support the festival and my friends.”
A love for Utah's great outdoors is what inspired Jamie Bernstein's friends, Tompkins and Barrett, who was Leonard Bernstein's assistant conductor from 1985-1990, to start the Moab Music Festival in the first place. Four concerts during the festival see chamber musicians performing among the red rocks — musicians who don't mind getting a little red dust on their concert attire as they hike with their instruments to the concert spots. Three performances called Grotto Concerts take concertgoers — and a grand piano — on a 45-minute jet boat ride down the Colorado River to a cavelike structure.
These outdoor settings are the heart of the festival, and Tompkins said she and Barrett enjoy capitalizing on the natural acoustics of such venues. But Tompkins — who participates regularly in the festival as a musician — admitted performing in these settings isn't for the fainthearted.
"All of our musicians are brilliant — that's the first prerequisite," she said. "But then the second prerequisite is that they're comfortable in the elements, because it's different and it's not really always the easiest thing to do. So that's a common thread for the returning musicians. They're just kind of crazy about it and absolutely love playing in that environment."
Over 200 miles from Salt Lake City, Moab might seem an unlikely destination for such a festival — but that distance makes it all the more enjoyable for Jamie Bernstein.
“It's part of the fun that it's hard to get there,” she said. “You can’t just jump on a plane and be there. The way I like to get there is to jump on two planes — one to Denver or Dallas, and then a smaller one to Grand Junction, Colorado, and then I rent a car — preferably a convertible — and I drive down from Grand Junction to Moab on this side road that hugs the Colorado River. It is the single most spectacular drive in the world. So just getting there is part of the fun already.”
And while Jamie Bernstein enjoys the spectacular views and festival experience each year, this one really hits home as it falls just after her father’s 100th birthday. The festival’s opening night concert on Aug. 31, titled “New Americans,” will feature a lecture from Sheng, Leonard Bernstein’s last student. The program will also highlight a few of Sheng’s Asia-influenced works and pieces from other composers who became American citizens during their lifetimes.
A week later, on Sept. 7, Jamie Bernstein will narrate a program alongside Barrett, who will perform on piano, titled “We Are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret” that highlights several of her father’s songs that were written for or about women. Wrapping up the festival is an event called "Coming to America," which will feature works from composer Aaron Copland, a friend of Leonard Bernstein's, and a few pieces honoring Bernstein on his centennial.
For Jamie Bernstein, who recently published a memoir titled “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein,” these events at the Moab Music Festival provide just a snapshot of how her father’s legacy has been celebrated this year and gives her assurance that his musical gift will keep on giving for generations to come.
“This whole year has been so insane,” she said. “There have been so many celebrations worldwide. My brother, sister and I were really hoping for a global celebration, but I’ve got to say, it's beyond anything we imagined — and it's so moving. There's something about my father and his music and the way he was that people have this really emotional connection to him. … It'll be great to go to Moab and get another big dose of that experience."