KURT BESTOR AND SAM CARDON, "Keepers of the Flame," Kingsbury Hall; Monday, Feb. 4, with additional performances Feb. 12-14, 8 p.m. Tickets at all ArtTix locations, 355-ARTS.

"Keepers of the Flame," Kurt Bestor and Sam Cardon's musical embodiment of the Olympic spirit, debuted Monday night as the official kickoff of the Cultural Olympiad for the 2002 Winter Games.

On hand were several official emissaries of the Games and former participants in the competitions, who lauded both the performance and its vision. It was the perfect way to open the arts festival, said Ray Grant, artistic director for SLOC. "The merger of sport and art celebrates the achievement that defines the Olympics," he said.

On behalf of 80,000 members of the World Olympians Association, its president, Hungarian Pal Schmitt, expressed gratitude that the opening cultural event was dedicated to Olympians. "We are proud to be Olympians, to know what it means to represent our countries in the biggest sports gathering in the world." And this performance, Schmitt said, "captured that spirit with lots of emotion."

But perhaps no one was touched quite as much as Mirsada Buric, whose life was depicted in the opening number, "Sarajevo." Buric, a runner from Bosnia, was heavily favored as a medal winner in the Barcelona Games until her training was disrupted by civil war and a stay in a concentration camp. She finished well back, but she finished.

Her story was told through song (with strong vocals by Jenny Jordan) and dance (a spritely Melissa Graehl). "I was very surprised when I found out about this," said Buric, who now lives in Arizona. "It's an amazing, powerful piece. It brought back a lot of good and bad memories, but it celebrates the spirit of life. No matter how people with crazy ideas try to destroy our spirit, we can go on. That's what the Olympics are."

That message was repeated throughout the evening, as musicians and dancers interpreted the stories of nine Olympic athletes in a production filled with spirit, energy and symbolism.

Meredith Campbell captured the tension and frenzy of Franz Klammer's famed 1:43:73-minute ski run with exceptional virtuosity (this piece will be played by Igor Gruppman in subsequent concerts). And she and cellist Ellen Bridger caught the passion and poignancy of skaters Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov (danced beautifully by Shaun Parry and Candice Taylor).

Members of the Deseret Dance Theater added delightful whimsy to the already playful "Over Backwards," the story of high-jumper Dick Fosbury and his famous flop, and added a fairy-tale quality to "Perfectiune," Nadia Comaneci's quest. The dancing by Jace Chan and fiddle-playing by Sam Bigney were also exceptional on "The Shadow Catcher," which told the saga of speed-skater Dan Jansen.

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The Genie (Alberto Tomba) and the Genius (Pirmin Zurbiggen) dueled it out with fantastic energy and style on the strings of Michael Dowdle's electric guitar and Craig Poole's electric bass. Sneeze performed drum magic on "Rise," the story of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, a vignette also given life by the Calvary Baptist Choir and some African dancers.

Throughout the evening, film footage of the athletes added dramatic background. Nowhere was that more effective than with "On Valkyrie Wings," which told of Jessie Owen's triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That number also featured exquisite trumpet work by Bestor. (Cardon and Bestor not only write with power and emotion, they perform that way as well. Both played numerous instruments throughout the program.)

The evening also featured an introductory set of other Bestor/Cardon numbers, including one they wrote for the Calgary Olympics in 1988 and pieces off their first "Innovators" album. These, too, showcased both their passion and talent. But it is "Keepers of the Flame" that so thoroughly captures the Olympic spirit. It is music that uplifts the spirit and touches the soul.

E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com

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