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- Abravanel Hall Archival
- O.C. Tanner, center, at the 1979 dedication of Symphony Hall
Abravanel Hall at 40
The history behind a Salt Lake City arts landmark.
By Scott Renshaw
This month, Salt Lake City's Abravanel Hall celebrates its 40th birthday. Dedicated on Sept. 13, 1979, as Symphony Hall, the new home of the Utah Symphony immediately became a beloved part of the city's growing arts infrastructure, renowned for its acoustics. But like many things that become landmarks, it easily could have been a very different thing—or, indeed, never happened at all.
Here's a historical timeline of how Abravanel Hall came to be, based on documents from the Utah Symphony archives and the histories recorded by several of the key players. Forty years later, their efforts continue to be appreciated by Utahns who love beautiful music.
1966: While the Utah Symphony used the Tabernacle at Temple Square as its home, a new symphony hall was originally considered as part of a very different project: The new Salt Palace Convention Center. Designs for the new facility initially included plans for a symphony hall. After construction began, costs increased to the point where it became necessary to axe the hall entirely from the project. O.C. Tanner—who compiled an in-depth record of his involvement in the long history of developing a symphony hall, and at that time a member of the Utah Symphony board—made a motion to delay plans to construct a symphony hall until a later point when funds might be available, and reserved the plot of land north of the Salt Palace for such a facility. Then-Utah Symphony conductor Maurice Abravanel was reportedly deeply disappointed in the decision, saying "My board has betrayed me!"
April 1972: Then-Utah Gov. Calvin Rampton initiates a plan for a Bicentennial Center for the Arts, part of a nationwide project that was planned to include federal funding. Tanner agreed to chair the committee overseeing the efforts, but in 1973, that expected federal funding was withdrawn. The Legislature approved $6.5 million for the project, on the condition that the committee could match that amount in additional public fundraising.
- Abravanel Hall Archival
- Construction of Symphony Hall
1975: This pivotal year became the critical moment for whether funding would be available. The Legislature set a deadline of Dec. 31, 1975, for securing the matching funds, and a state Supreme Court ruling on how bonds could be valued required taking the measure to a general election bond measure. Tanner reached out to political consultant Richard Eyre—who had worked on Jake Garn's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate—to guide the efforts to win public opinion for the bond measure. It won, and funding was in place to begin the project.
The plans take another turn when the construction committee, headed by Jack Gallivan, approached Dr. Cyril Harris—a respected Columbia University acoustical engineer whose other projects included the Kennedy Center for the Arts and Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall—to serve as the acoustical consultant for what was initially planned as a multi-purpose performing arts center. Harris declined, arguing that multi-purpose facilities were inadequate to the acoustics required for a first-rate symphony hall. He said that he would work on a facility that was intended exclusively as a symphony hall, and recommended considering another facility to serve as home for other performing arts organizations. As a result, the project came to encompass renovations to the Capitol Theatre, which still serves as home to several of those organizations' performances today.
In fall 1975, Gallivan's committee reaches out to John Price of John Price Associates to serve as an architectural consultant. Price explores building material alternatives to reduce costs, and agrees both to donate his consulting fee back to the project, and to bring in the three projects—Symphony Hall, renovations of the Capitol Theatre and what would become the Salt Lake Art Center (now Utah Museum of Contemporary Art)—in under the $20 million budget. Price—who also served as U.S. ambassador to Mauritius and the Seychelles—wrote in his 2011 memoir When the White House Calls, "To my knowledge, this was the first civic project of this size in the country to be built under the construction management concept. Initially, there were mixed feelings about this approach: as noted, the architects were not too happy under this arrangement, and neither were some of the arts groups, who wanted more embellishments than could be provided with the available funds."
1977: Groundbreaking ceremonies in March are moved indoors to the Salt Palace as a result of snow, and include former Gov. Rampton, current Gov. Scott Matheson, Mayor Ted Wilson and members of Tanner's Bicentennial Commission and Gallivan's Planning Committee. Weather is more cooperative for the laying of the cornerstone in October of that year, which also included a performance by the symphony.
1979: On advice of his physicians, Maurice Abravanel—who had undergone open-heart surgery in 1976—retires as conductor of Utah Symphony after 32 years, making him unable to take the baton for the dedication of the new Symphony Hall. It will eventually be renamed in his honor in May 1993.
September 1979: Symphony Hall is dedicated with a program under conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski that includes the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E Minor. Dr. Cyril Harris, upon hearing the results of his efforts during the Utah Symphony's first rehearsal in the hall, says, "I already knew it was a hall of excellence. I just didn't know how excellent ... I think it would be safe to say the hall is second to none in acoustical quality."