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It's not often that the state's two best-known arts organizations, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony, travel south for the same event. In fact, the last time was nearly 20 years ago.

But it's happening again this week, as each will be performing as part of the gala opening of the Tuacahn Amphitheater and Center for the Arts, a new $20-million arts complex near the south entrance of Snow Canyon, 10 miles northwest of St. George.The symphony, conducted by Robert Henderson, will perform Wednesday, April 5, a program that will include Kurt Bestor and Sam Cardon's "Tuacahn Overture," Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" and music of Wagner, Copland and William Schuman. That will be followed on Friday, April 7, by a concert by the Jets, with Smith 4 and Ali Ali Oxen Free.

Then on Saturday, April 8, President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will dedicate the new facility, followed by a concert by the Tabernacle Choir.

Starting time for each is 7:30 p.m.

The complex represents the combined dream of LDS dramatist Doug Stewart ("Saturday's Warrior," "Where the Red Fern Grows," etc.) and his wife, Mary.

"Hers was to make sure her kids continued to get top-notch instruction in music," Stewart says of his wife. "Mine was to have fulfillment creating and reaching an audience."

Thus, after their relocation to St. George in 1983 ("I came down here to shoot a film," Stewart says) they began to think about bringing some of the teachers they had been taking their children to study with in Provo and Los Angeles to their area, and about making that same instruction available to others.

And Stewart began thinking about creating an outdoor theatrical venue.

"Here you have 3 million-plus going through the gates of Zion National Park each year, and I asked myself, `Why aren't we providing something for these people at night?' "

Stewart answered that question by putting together a proposal for "an outdoor historical drama that would be second to none in the country, in which special effects and entertainment value would be paramount - because of our close proximity to Las Vegas - in an absolutely spectacular setting, which I was convinced we could find because of the wonderful red-rock canyons we have here."

Encouraged by friends, he also began to explore funding possibilities. "So I laid out this proposal to three more people, and with the first one I walked away with a check for $10,000, with the second one for $50,000 and the third for $25,000."

The result was the founding in September 1991 of the Heritage Arts Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose stated goal is "to preserve historical and cultural heritage through the arts, and to promote character and lasting values through the development of talents."

The 80-acre site was selected a short time later and named "Tuacahn," which Stewart says is his own version of a Mayan word meaning "canyon of the gods." "I kind of `massaged' the word," he says, adding that he was looking for something "that had a Native American feel."

And once found, Stewart says, the site "began to dictate the scope of the project. Suddenly it wasn't just an amphitheater for an outdoor production, but it included the very dream my wife had been pursuing, a center for the arts."

Along the way there have been difficulties. Construction, which began in June 1993, was halted after two desert tortoises - marked as a potentially endangered species - were found dead on the facility's entry road the following May. That meant, in addition to the delays, what Stewart estimates as "hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and the cost of implementing a habitat conservation plan to protect the tortoise."

The weather proved a further obstacle. With all the rain recently, Stewart says, "we had crews working through the night with floodlights, pouring concrete under canopies and tarps."

As of last week, however, things looked as though they would be ready for the opening. "It's amazing," Stewart says. "We're still pouring concrete in certain areas and there are trucks all over the place. But flowers are blooming on the trees lining the plaza and water is flowing in the fountains."

"It's just an outstanding facility," says Utah Symphony cellist John Eckstein, one of the school's 40 faculty members. "Here's a building waiting to be a music conservatory in the middle of the most beautiful red-rock setting you've ever seen."

Pianist/conductor Massimiliano Frani's association with Tuacahn also predates last January's move to the new facility. "It's really a state-of-the-art music school," he observes of the 42,000-square-foot building, citing its various theaters, dance studios, recording studio, teaching studios and recital room. "There's even a shop for fixing instruments."

According to Stewart, the facility currently has around 600 students, "most of them from St. George, but also some from Cedar City and one from Page, Ariz. But I think it's important for the public to know this is only Phase 1. We have a lot of room for expansion and plan on adding student housing for summer music camps, a 1,000-seat theater and concert hall as well as a visual arts building."

The amphitheater, by contrast, seats 2,000, and Stewart's goal is to have every one of them filled over the next three years for his big production, "Utah!" which opens June 23 and runs through Sept. 2.

With music by Bestor and Cardon and a cast of 80, Stewart describes the show as "a depiction of the faith and courage of the pioneers who settled southern Utah at a very volatile time." Seen through the eyes of pioneer leader Jacob Hamblin, the scenario includes the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Johnston's army, the Navajo uprising and, most spectacularly, the flood of 1862.

"That's our signature special effect," Stewart says, "and it's just going to wow people. We have recreated the Santa Clara River and every night 30,000 gallons of water will rush down the hillside toward the stage, go across the stage toward the audience and destroy a stone fort."

At the same time Stewart hopes to do more than wow people. First, there is the center, which the foundation says it intends to make the "Tanglewood of the West."

Then there is the Mormon Arts Symposium, scheduled April 7 and 8, which organizers see as the prelude to an annual Mormon Arts Festival at Tuacahn beginning next year.

With Hugo-award-winning author Or-son Scott Card as keynote speaker, the symposium will include seminars and round-table and panel discussions focusing on the challenges facing LDS artists, whether in music, dance, theater or visual arts. Other speakers include Stewart and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Council of the Twelve.

Registration is $40; for information call 652-3318.

Stewart emphasizes that "the school is completely distant from the church. There's no tie other than we want to create young people who want to have character and strong values.

"Even with the symposium, we're not proselyting. We're talking about how do we tell our story, how do we communicate who we are through the arts. How do we create a `Fiddler on the Roof' or a `Sound of Music' that breaks out of Mormon culture and speaks to the world about our culture?"

To some extent, Stewart acknowledges, "Utah!" does that. "But I don't really put that in the category of religion, because it's not promoting religion - it's promoting history."

It's also promoting a site whose 1,500-foot sandstone cliffs, he believes, put one in mind of Shangri-La.

"We had a visitor the other day who said, `You know, I could come here and pay my $20 to see the show and feel I'd had my money's worth just sitting here experiencing the environment. It's so gorgeous."

For further information, call 674-0012.