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Kurt Bestor: Private discord, public acclaim

Chasing his muse has given him much turmoil

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Kurt Bestor has spent most of his adult life trying to be a family man who brought home a paycheck while also trying to court his muse, as he calls it, but this morning there is no such conflict. He and his muse are sharing a cabin and making beautiful music together.

He wrote one song today. He wrote another one the previous day, and another one the day before that. The music seems to be right there in the mountains and the deep pine forests.

Sitting at a baby grand piano in a cabin high above Sundance Ski Resort, he closes his eyes and tunes in his muse, the intoxicating, demanding mistress that has both uplifted and upended his life. For nearly two decades Bestor has been a successful and versatile musician and a celebrity Mormon, but the public perception and the private reality have been at odds for years. He is twice divorced and uncertain of his Mormon beliefs, and some of that personal pain is turning up in his music.

Today, he is trying to paint a musical picture of an aimless drive he once took in the throes of agony that eventually brought him to the Canadian border in Montana. He sits at the piano and begins playing "Northbound to Nowhere."

"This has a certain uncertainty to it — like, what am I going to do? What road should I take?" he says, his fingers moving over the keys, the left hand occasionally stopping to lead an imaginary orchestra. "Now I'm driving. I'm driving to Montana," he says, and the music does convey a sense of moving down the black ribbon of a highway. "I'll have the strings come in here." He plays on, eyes closed, face scrunched up. "After awhile, I don't even know where I am. Now I'm in a state of contemplation, my thoughts are racing . . ."

Bestor has moved into the rented cabin alone to escape distraction and concentrate on writing music for an upcoming CD. He had the piano delivered here. When he finds the music he wants on the piano, he plays it again on a synthesizer, which records the notes on a laptop.

He plays and composes while staring out a window at the trees whispering in the breeze and listening to the gurgle of a mountain stream at the foot of the cabin. His art is to marry music to emotions, events and images — sunsets, loneliness or driving aimlessly on a highway to Montana while sorting through the rubble of his domestic life. "I've chosen to paint musical watercolors without lyrics," he explains. He begins to write music only when his fingers touch the keyboard; before that, he has no notes in his mind.

"The piano is a tool for him," says Newell Dayley, Bestor's old mentor. "Others conceive the music in their mind and write it on paper. He loves that touch."

"Before I sit at the piano, the music has taste, I can taste it in my mouth, I can feel it, but it's not really music yet," Bestor says.

A life in transition

Now 44, he has been tasting music since his boyhood in Wisconsin and later Orem. He has been making a living with his music since dropping out of Brigham Young University late in his senior year to write commercial jingles.

Bestor has acquired much of his fame with his annual Christmas concerts and Christmas recordings, but he has done much more behind the scenes — the Calgary Olympic TV theme (which won an Emmy), music for the Salt Lake Olympic closing ceremonies, scores for more than 30 films, material for more than 40 TV shows, including "Good Morning America," "Monday Night Football," "National Geographic," Fox TV news, ABC's college basketball, ABC's "Movie of the Week," NBC's 1988 Super Bowl, ABC's baseball playoff coverage, NBC's 1992 Barcelona Olympic coverage. The list goes on and on.

His music is everywhere, whether it's Provo's Stadium of Fire on the Fourth of July or European concert halls for the LDS Sea Trek or LDS Church movies or the dozens of charity appearances he makes annually on local TV and radio ads. (The other day he marveled to hear that a jingle he wrote in college for Alpine Fireplace is still being aired.)

He has conducted his own classical compositions with the Utah Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, The Prague Festival Orchestra and The Estonian National Symphony. He has performed for Jane Goodall, Madeleine Albright and Mikhail Gorbachev at the World Summit in New York. He has conducted his own ballet. He has collaborated with Lou Rawls, Kenny Loggins, Dolly Parton, Dick Van Dyke and Vanessa Williams.

He has done just about everything that involves music — scores for Sony PlayStation, beauty pageants, Muzak, marching bands, you name it. He even composed the school song for Timpanogos High School.

But Bestor, who has produced 22 CDs with two more in the works, says he is "digging deeper" these days. His upcoming CD will be the first music he has written about his personal life.

"I get tired of writing for money," he says. "It's hard to chase money and the muse. I hate to think about money."

This is fanciful thinking for a guy with two ex-wives. Bestor, restless and driven, is in a state of transition. His life has been turned upside down the past three years. He divorced his wife of 20 years, Melodie, then divorced his second wife, Holli Ammon, after a year of marriage. A popular figure among fellow Mormons (and a former counselor in a bishopric), he is disenchanted with Mormonism, and his business, Pinnacle Music Group, has fallen on hard times.

But the ever-optimistic Bestor says, "I'm on the upside now."

'He can charm anybody'

Bestor has invited a visitor to spend the morning with him at the cabin. After giving directions over the phone, he meets his guest on the side of the main canyon road and guides him down a narrow dirt road to his small log home.

"This is it," he says, climbing out of the car.

Dressed in an old gray T-shirt, cargo shorts and sandals, he is a trim, athletic-looking 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. He has his own personal trainer — "because I need someone to kick my butt. I made it a goal in my life not to look like a musician." He lifts weights three times a week and sticks to a diet of things like brown rice, egg whites, broccoli and protein shakes.

Bestor has made-for-TV good looks. His most prominent feature is a mane of thick, long hair crested by a brown wave curling back off his forehead, usually with a few stray cords dangling stylishly.

He also possesses natural charisma and a quick wit, which he employs during concerts. While conducting the orchestra and playing the piano (or other instruments), he manages to maintain warm banter with the audience.

"He is so charming," says ex-wife Melodie. "People fall at his feet. And rightly so. I was drawn to him myself. He can charm anybody. And he's a genuinely nice person. He has no guile. We were married 20 years. It was a hard habit to break."

Bestor shows his visitor inside the cabin and discusses his work. He writes music at the piano from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, but he takes frequent breaks to sculpt clay, hike the mountains and write verse. An avowed nature lover, he will hike to some spot in the hills, sit on the ground and write in a leather-bound journal, where he writes music ideas, poems and notes.

"It's too intense to write music all the time," he says.

But that is what he lives for, what drives him. Although not a huge commercial success — and this is certainly no measure of talent, given the pop stardom of Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and their ilk — Bestor possesses indisputable, versatile musical gifts. He plays the piano, trumpet, flugelhorn, harmonica and accordion. He has arranged music for more than 100 CDs, records and cassette tapes for other musicians. He writes music for full orchestras and conducts them. He writes his own music, and on rare occasions puts it to words, most notably his popular "Prayer of the Children," which laments the plight of children in Yugoslavia, whom he observed while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The great thing about Kurt," says Dayley, dean of the college of fine arts and communications at BYU, "is he is a fine performer, a fine composer, a fine conductor, a fine technician and arranger, and he understands the equipment in the studio. I would just call him a master musician. He does it all. And it's wonderful."

After watching the movie "Jaws" as a teenager, Bestor determined that he wanted to write music for film. While the other boys were engrossed in the violence and drama of the movie, Bestor was mesmerized by the score. Dayley, who gave Bestor trumpet lessons, recalls, "Right from the very beginning, he was asking questions about composition. He has a lot of innate ability. He used to sit at the piano and just improvise and compose as he went along."

Bestor's mother, Phyllis, noticed her son's penchant for improvisation and musical imagery. She liked to tell her young son, "Play what a sunrise sounds like." Or, "Play me a summer storm." Phyllis says, "He'd get this big grin when I'd say. 'Yes, I can see it and feel it.' "

During his high school years, Bestor, who was a Catholic at the time, entertained friends by improvising songs such as the LDS hymn "Choose the Right." "This is the way Bach would play that," he would say, and then he would play it. "And this is the way it would be played in jazz," and then he would play it that way.

"He loved to improvise quite early," says Phyllis. At piano recitals, the instructor would introduce Bestor by saying, "Kurt will play this piece by Mozart the way Mozart played it." Afterward, the instructor would say, "Now Kurt will play it his way."

All these years later, Bestor is still playing sunrises and summer thunderstorms. He stops by his parents' house in Orem occasionally to play his latest composition, asking them to "Listen and tell me what you feel and see." Says Phyllis, "A lot of times I will be very close to what he was feeling and seeing. That's a nice moment between mother and son. His music gives me chills."

Growing success

Bestor grew up the oldest of four children in a musical, achievement-oriented family that was headed by two educators, Rollie and Phyllis. Rollie worked his way through college by playing the trumpet in a jazz band. (Rollie's father had his own band and played trumpet for groups traveling through the Wisconsin area, including Tommy Dorsey's and Bunny Berrigan's.) While serving as athletic director over non-NCAA sports and coaching the diving team at BYU, Rollie sang in and coached barbershop quartets.

Phyllis taught high school English and speech for 35 years, most of it at Orem High. (A psychologist would have a field day with this: Melodie Bestor now teaches English at Orem High in Phyllis' old classroom.) The family roots are in Wisconsin, but the Bestors moved to Orem in 1966 while Rollie pursued a doctorate at BYU. The school eventually hired Rollie, and the Bestors never left town. Ten years later, the entire family joined the LDS Church.

In the Bestor household, the kids — Kurt, John, Jill and Carrie — were expected to do well in school, attend church, play the piano and compete for the local swim team. A strong work ethic was instilled by a daily regimen of getting up at 5 a.m. for swim workouts, enduring grueling repeat 1,650-yard training sessions, and 9 p.m. bed times.

At the end of each school year the Orem High School faculty presents the "Tigerama Award" to a male and female senior who contributed the most during their three years of high school. The four Bestor kids each won the award during a five-year period.

John, now an FBI agent, was an outstanding track and field athlete at BYU, excelling in the pole vault, decathlon and javelin. Carrie was a gymnast at BYU and Jill a three-sport prep athlete. Kurt competed in swimming for 10 years. (He medaled in the state meet and set school records in the backstroke and individual medley.)

As a teen, Bestor listened to classical music ("but I didn't tell my friends"), as well as jazz and pop music that employed brass and sophisticated rhythms. "I didn't really like rock 'n' roll," he says. "I liked music with legs, something you don't get the first time you listen."

Bestor's early love of music could be summed up this way: "I never could walk by a piano without stopping to play a 'ditty.' " Like other kids, he hated practicing, but in essence that's what he did while playing piano or trumpet in five different performing groups as a high school senior — orchestra, symphonic band, jazz band, a cappella choir and chamber choir. (He also performed in musical theater.)

He majored in music composition at BYU, but wound up dropping out of school two classes short of a degree to write music for a living. (He completed the classes years later.) He wrote "Muzak" ("Ever wonder who the guy was who wrote that crap?" he says); TV themes (he began as a staff musician for an Osmond show); and commercial jingles. On a lark, he and Sam Cardon, a longtime friend and collaborator, wrote a jingle — "Season's Greetings from ABC" — and sent it to the network unsolicited. ABC bought it. This eventually led to their award-winning music for the '88 Summer Games and other TV work. His career was rolling.

"I was a hired gun," says Bestor of his many years of writing contracted music for commercials, TV and movies.

He found it unfulfilling. Inspired by the score for "On Golden Pond," he began to write and arrange music for a CD he called "Joyspring," a collection of what might be called New Age Mormon music. When no one was interested in recording it, Bestor paid $700 to record it himself and shopped it around. He found a taker and the album proved to be surprisingly successful. He followed that up by trying to shop a Christmas CD, which was greeted with more skepticism.

"I was told it was not a good idea, that it was a small-selling season and that Mannheim Steamroller was the only one out there that had its own Christmas album," says Bestor.

He persuaded friends to start a record label called Airus, and they produced his first Christmas album, "Airus Christmas." "It (sales) went crazy," says Bestor. "It just shows what happens if we follow our own instincts rather than just follow each other around in a circle. I learned I was not going to pattern my career after someone else."

A demanding muse

Since then, Bestor has completed four Christmas albums and 18 non-Christmas CDs, most notably "Innovators" and "Sketches." Bestor means Christmas to many people. His annual Christmas concerts — there are eight of them in Salt Lake City, plus performances in Phoenix, San Francisco and Portland — are well attended, beautifully produced, fully orchestrated events in which Bestor puts his deft, lush spin on old Christmas music from around the world.

"My favorite feeling is to stand in front of a symphony, and when I lower the baton, out of 80 or 90 musicians comes something that was in my head," he says. "I don't even totally understand how that works. It's magical almost. I can put it down on paper out of my head, and the musicians combine their talents and the audience receives what I felt when I was in my room by myself creating it. Music is pure communication. It makes me feel like I have a mission or purpose in life. I take people on a little journey in concerts. It feels right."

That purpose in life has consumed Bestor. He loves his music — his muse — so much that he has given up almost everything to pursue it, namely two wives, two daughters and a beautiful custom home. For the past year, he has lived alone in his Midvale second-story office above a recording studio. He sleeps on a hide-a-bed.

All parties agree on the reason for the failed marriages. "I love my muse," says Bestor. "My career had a large part to do with it. It's probably hard to be married to me. It's hard to compete with my muse."

"Music is his first love," says Melodie. "It broke my heart. But what could I do about it? I adored him."

Melodie and Kurt, who were engaged the night he returned from his mission (she lived with his parents while he was away), appeared to be the perfect couple: both attractive, dark-haired, dedicated and brilliant musicians. Kurt says Melodie is actually a better pianist than he is, and friends agree. She's played the piano at some of his concerts.

"I tried to be part of his life," says Melodie. "I'd help at concerts. I loved his music. He would often have me critique it."

Bestor worked at home, but he might as well have been elsewhere. He shut himself away and worked long hours. "I can't say, 'It's five o'clock, I'll stop thinking of music,' " Bestor says. He missed their daughters' recitals, school events, even his own family reunions. His local fame also brought heavy demands for appearances and concerts and charity events.

"He tried really hard to make room for me and the kids and the church," says Melodie. "But he is just so driven. He is almost helpless. Maybe that's the case with any genius."

Melodie not only held down a full-time teaching job, but she ran the household and took care of the loose ends "because he's such a flake, such a scatterbrain," she says. "I paid the bills, made sure he made appointments on time, answered the phone, made arrangements, cleaned up messes he made. I was doing it so he wouldn't have to worry about it, so he could do his music. His parents picked up the slack, too. They helped with the kids, and his dad mowed the lawn."

Says Bestor, "It's hard for me to use my talent, and I'm supposed to use it to help people and do benefit concerts, and I don't have time. I forget to take the garbage out, or I miss the PTA meeting. I gave up trying."

As if all of this weren't enough, there was heartbreak: Both daughters, Kristan, now 21, and Ericka, 14, were born with spina bifida. The care of the girls — the catheters and the operations and the therapy — fell to Melodie.

The marriage finally collapsed in 1999. "He got tired of the faade," says Melodie. "He wanted the divorce. I didn't. I groveled. He finally said don't beg anymore. I was so desperate to keep it together."

By then, Bestor had long since begun dating Holli Ammon, a studio and backup singer who had two children from a previous marriage. They married in the fall of 2000. "He left Melodie for me," says Ammon. "I absolutely adored him. I had a terrible marriage for years (before Bestor). Things happen. Infatuations start."

A few months later, Bestor left Ammon and they eventually divorced. Ammon says Bestor abandoned her and her girls; he simply stopped coming home. Weeks went by without contact. "I saw him on TV with no wedding ring on," she says. "Desertion is an understatement. He didn't have the guts to cut it off." She says she had to hawk a ring and furniture to pay her bills, and she received no alimony. (She says she decided not to pursue the matter legally.)

"I had to give up my life to make money to support them," says Bestor. "There was no time to write. I was at a crossroads. I lost the guy who wrote 'Prayer of the Children.' "

Melodie says that guy never came back. "Kurt is a different person now," she says. "He's not the person I married. His beliefs and values are not mine. I don't even know him anymore. He's done things and been places . . . "

'What has happened to me?'

Rollie, the devoted father and Kurt Bestor fan, is an outspoken man, and he takes questions about his son's mid-life troubles head on. After pausing to find just the right words, he begins, "I see Kurt as happy as I've seen him and happy on his terms, not on Mom and Dad's terms, which is family and kids and going to the ballpark and picnics. That's not him. He's not into the mundane — edging the lawn, cleaning the garage. Even when he was a boy, when he had to cut the lawn he'd pay his sisters to do it. Where is he now? He's still in transition and probably always will be. His mind is going a mile a minute."

Says Cardon, "What he does is consuming. It demands a lot of emotional investment. Then combine that with being a public figure in Utah. For every charitable event, he gets a phone call. It gets to be a grind, but he still does those things out of the goodness of his heart. I call it the music mistress, another partner in the marriage that gets in the way. It takes its toll."

Sitting on the deck of the cabin, Bestor is asked the big question: Why? What is the real allure of music that motivates him and drives him on?

"There's a communication between the audience and me when something is in my head and people in the audience feel what I felt at, say, the cabin. I love that. At that moment the world is perfect . . . When I do 'Prayer of the Children,' it's as if the audience doesn't want to breathe. That's why I do it. That gives me purpose. There are moments when time stands still. Everyone's breathing at the same time; when the music goes up, everyone goes up, and when it goes down, everyone goes down. There's a unity of feeling."

It is only at such moments that Bestor seems entirely at peace with himself. The rest has been turmoil in his late quest for self. In many ways, Bestor is starting a new life and rekindling his career. He hasn't produced a CD in three years, he no longer receives job offers from the LDS Church, and, for that matter, other old sources. The Pinnacle Music Group, which handles his royalties, among other things, has been cut from 12 employees to two. Bestor's distaste for money aside, he recently mailed handwritten inquiries for work.

"I'm just not getting the calls," he says. "For a long time, I worked for hire. That's changed. I don't know if people don't know my number or what. If I went out, I could find it. I think they assume I'm so successful that I don't want it. Or they assume I'm a bazillionaire. I do all right, but I scramble at the end of the month. Divorce will do that."

His cash cow is the annual Christmas concert tour, which helps sustain him through the year. He doesn't seem to want. He toured Europe recently. An expert skier, he also took his annual heli-skiing trip to Canada. He spent $3,000 to rent the cabin for a month, and he plans to buy a house.

Bestor, his ex-wives say, doesn't appear to have suffered for the upheaval of his personal life, but he paints a different picture.

In the wake of his first divorce, one night he sat alone in a downtown apartment, listening to the sirens and the traffic and wondering "what the hell have I done? I fell to my knees and just groaned. What has happened to me?"

He got in his car and drove with no destination in mind, which was the inspiration for "Northbound to Nowhere." When he reached Glacier National Park, he climbed out of the car and went for a four-hour hike to a high glacier lake.

"It was so beautiful, I started to cry," he says. "I realized I still have it in me to love nature and see beauty."

'I love where I am'

The postscript is this: The Bestor women have moved on. Kristan and Ericka are both musical and talented and perform occasionally. Bestor sees his daughters a couple of times a month. Melodie and Ammon arranged to meet last fall, and they laughed and cried together. It was cathartic, they say.

Says Ammon, "Melodie is the most gracious, loving person. The first thing she said was, 'Well, you got a taste of it, didn't you? Now you know what I went through.' It wasn't a Kurt bashing dinner. I was asking her for forgiveness."

Melodie, whose relationship with Bestor is amicable — "We're very friendly," she says. "It's hard not to like him," — hasn't remarried. Ammon has a new husband and a new home in California. Bestor has a new girlfriend, a therapist and a trainer.

"It's a bit of a mid-life crisis, my therapist tells me," says Bestor. "I'm just not satisfied with anything in my life anymore."

That includes his faith. His religious leanings are nebulous, doubtful and intertwined with his love of the mountains and nature, but he still tries to attend LDS Church meetings, and he wonders if "the path" he's on won't lead him back that way someday. "I was the Mormon hero," he says wryly.

Ammon puts it another way: "He's lived off the Mormon people for years. He's such a hypocrite."

Says Bestor, "I'm Mormon, but perhaps not orthodox. I attend church, but find myself closer to God when I hike Timpanogos. I see God in the miracle of life and feel Him in the music, but have trouble, at times, understanding His true nature. I struggle at times with the culture, but have a strong yearning to live as Jesus did . . . There's nothing in my life that is at odds with my Mormonism. I also feel a deep spiritual mission, a 'calling' as it were, to spread my gospel of peace and sweetness through music. Spiritually I feel incredibly fulfilled . . . I love where I am — spiritually active with the same values that I've always had."

As always, Bestor is dreaming of more music. He wants to do a TV show on the history of film music, with his own arrangements and some of his original music. He wants to build a children's TV show around music. He is already discussing an idea for a TV show in which he visits various musicians around the world — bagpipe players in Scotland, choirs in England, percussionists in Africa — and then brings them together for a concert in the season-ending grand finale.

"He's a giant," says Cardon. "He's done things by sheer force of will. There are certain people who seem like they were born into the world to do certain things. They just have a certain momentum. He's always headed somewhere. He just had big dreams. The other thing that is remarkable is I don't know if I've ever seen as many gifts given to one individual. He's a first-rate composer, a terrific public speaker, a pretty good actor, a great athlete, a bit of a poet and sculptor and artist. An artistic nature just fills him up. And he's exceptionally bright. He could have chosen to do anything."

Back at the cabin, Bestor plays the piano as he talks to his visitor. Even with the many hours he spends working on music, he still can't walk past a piano without stopping to play it for the sheer joy of making music.

He tells his parents he wishes he had been born hundreds of years ago when a king might have retained him to do nothing but write music, and he wouldn't have to worry about the mundane. But, to a certain extent, isn't that the life he has cut out for himself? This morning, it is just Bestor, the mountain cabin and his mistress muse.

E-mail: drob@desnews.com