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Park City festival sets the standard

Russell and Leslie Harlow are artistic directors of the Park City Music Festival, which they started 25 years ago.
Russell and Leslie Harlow are artistic directors of the Park City Music Festival, which they started 25 years ago.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Twenty-five years ago, Leslie Harlow broke new ground in Utah when she started what is now known as the Park City and Salt Lake City Music Festival.

At the time, there weren't any summer chamber music festivals in the state and only a handful around the country. That's changed now, of course. Everywhere you look there seems to be a summer festival of one sort or another.

Here in Utah, we now also have the Moab Music Festival and the Intermezzo Chamber Music Series, both of which offer their audiences wonderful and innovative programming each year. But that's something Harlow and her husband and co-director, Russell Harlow, have been doing so well for the past quarter century. And, even though each is distinctive, you could say that Moab and Intermezzo owe their existence to the Park City festival .

I love chamber music. I grew up in a home where there always was classical music. As a kid I listened to recordings of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, Verdi's operas, the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and those by Johann Strauss.

But it wasn't until I discovered chamber music when I was around 14 that classical music took on a new meaning for me.

My first encounter with chamber music was Beethoven's cello sonatas. I was overwhelmed by what I heard in these works. It was a new world that had opened up and I knew then and there that I wanted to be a musician. And later, when I came across other works, like Beethoven's late quartets, Mozart's string quintets, Schubert's and Haydn's quartets and Bach's violin partitas and cello suites, my love for chamber music was ensured.

There is nothing quite like this music. It appeals to me in its intimacy and immediacy. It is absolute music in the best sense.

For me chamber music is the perfect balance to orchestral music. I need that balance, and that's where the Park City festival comes in. The musical fix I get there every summer recharges my batteries and reinvigorates me. You could say that chamber music cleanses the musical palate. At least it does so in my case.

What sets the Harlows' festival apart from the others is quite simple. The musicians they invite each year are among the best chamber musicians in the country. And the Harlows know them well and have collaborated with many of them over the years at concerts throughout the United States. They know how to group them together to get the best out of each one of them. And that becomes obvious at concerts. These players know this music. They infuse their readings with a freshness that can be surprising just because it's so rare to find that quality among today's musicians.

Oftentimes I've found myself hearing such well-known works as the Brahms piano quartets or the Dvorak trios in a new light simply by what these players bring to them. They have an incredible ability to draw the listener in and envelope them in the intimacy that exists in chamber music between performers and audience.

If you haven't been to a Park City concert yet, you really don't know what you've missing. You'll be astonished by the quality and caliber of the experience. And even though the festival ended last weekend, the good news is you don't have to wait until next summer to give it a try.

A few years back, the Harlows started an autumn festival, which this year runs from Oct. 2-12, featuring a number of musicians who have been part of the summer festival for many years, as well as some newer players. Log onto the festival Web site for details (

I guarantee you won't be disappointed.