The Bicentennial Symphony Hall opened on 14 September 1979, with guest conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczeski directing the Utah Symphony. The performance was telecast on KSTU-TV and simulcast on KUER-FM. President N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered the dedicatory prayer. At the end of the program, cheering from the audience brought Skrowaczewski back to the podium four times. Some of the applause followed Skrowaczewski's tribute to Maurice Abravanel, “This orchestra, this wonderful hall – this man made it!”[1, 2, 3]
When Maurice Abravanel became conductor in 1947, the Utah Symphony was a part-time community orchestra, practicing and performing in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Under Abravanel's guidance, it grew to be “respected and revered throughout the country and the world.” Part of his vision for the Symphony included having a home of its own.
In preparation for the country's bicentennial celebration, President Richard Nixon promised federal funding for state arts projects. Utah's $19 million Bicentennial Arts Project included a concert hall, a visual arts center, and the restoration of the Capitol Theatre. After Watergate, the federal funding failed to materialize. Voters passed an $8.6 million bond in 1975, which was added to a $6 million appropriation from the Utah State Legislature. The balance was paid by Salt Lake County and private donations. Dr. Obert C. Tanner donated $200,000 for the plaza fountain and $138,000 for gold leaf.
Maurice Abravanel told the planning committee for the $12 million Symphony Hall, “If you will choose the acoustician before you select the architect, I will stay out of your way.” Cyril M. Harris of Columbia University, whose previous work included the Metropolitan Opera House, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Avery Fisher Hall, designed shoebox-shaped hall to achieve “a technical excellence in sound while also including simple, elegant aesthetics.” The stage has no drapery or curtain, making the musician's platform “an extension of the audience, not separate from it.” After the opening concert, Harris said, "It's everything I expected it to be. No hall anywhere has superior clarity, and the bass is just great. It's as good as any hall I know!"
Symphony Hall was designed by the architectural firm of Fouler, Ferguson, Kingston and Ruben. The entire east wall of the triangular lobby is a four-story window. The glass is set in a trough to allow for seasonal expansion and contraction. In the lobby, a grand staircase and “floating bridges” provide access to the three levels of the auditorium. The décor includes colors of gold and royal forest green, crystal and brass chandeliers, oak, gold leaf, and over a mile of brass railing. Opening night patrons appreciated one feature not previously available at Utah Symphony concerts: individual seats. During the 32 years at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, patrons sat on wooden benches.
The lobby, conference rooms, a reception lounge, the Tanner Lounge, and the first-tier reception room are available for special occasions, such as weddings, business functions, and receptions. Office and storage space backstage include practice rooms, dressing rooms, lockers, a “garage” for grand pianos, and a library for books and scores. An inside loading dock allows instruments and equipment to be unloaded in any weather.
An expansion in 1998 added a new reception area on the first tier, an expanded box-office area, and better restroom facilities. A Chihuly glass sculpture made for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games remains in the lobby and requires dusting every six weeks.
Keith Lockhart, music director for the Utah Symphony in 2004, said, "I think Abravanel Hall ranks among the finest modern halls in the country. Acoustically, it is warm and embracing; it gives the audience a real sense of the presence of the orchestra, and there's not a bad seat in the house! Architecturally, it is simply stunning; simple, clean and elegant — a wonderful temple in which to hear the great gift of music."
After attending the opening night performance in 1979, Elizabeth Schoenfeld of the Deseret News observed, “Even the clapping sounds good in Symphony Hall.”
On 4 January 1993, Salt Lake County Commission Chairman Jim Bradley told Utah Symphony board members that Symphony Hall would be renamed for Maurice Abravanel. Bradley said, “Forty-five years ago he took over a semi-professional ensemble and transformed it into a nationally respected symphony orchestra, which created world-class recordings of masterworks and premiered new ones.”
A formal announcement of the name change was made on 5 January 1993, on the eve of his 90th birthday, as Abravanel attended a dinner in his honor. Governor Norm Bangerter and Ballet West founder William F. Christensen gave tributes, and a birthday message from President Bush was read.
Three music halls were named in Abravanel's honor before Symphony Hall, at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, which he directed for 27 years; at the Ocean Hills Country Club in Oceanside, California; and at a retirement community in Long Island, New York.
After his retirement, Abravanel received the Gold Baton of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Conductors Guild's Theodore Thomas Award. In 1991, President Bush presented to him the National Medal of Arts at the White House.
Maurice Abravanel passed away on 22 September 1993, at age 90.
1. "Inside Looking Out", Deseret News, 14 September 1979, page B1
2. "Abravanel, Others Call Concert Debut 'Fantastic'", Deseret News, 15 September 1979, page B1
3. "Acoustics Declared as Good as in Any Concert Building", Deseret News, 15 September 1979, page B1
4. "Symphony Hall to be Renamed for Abravanel", Deseret News, 05 January 1993, page B1
5. "Abravanel Finds Tribute on Eve of His 90th Birthday 'Beautiful for Me'", Deseret News, 06 January 1993, page B4
6. "Former Symphony Director Maurice Abravanel Dies at 90", Deseret News, 22 September 1993, page B1
7. "An acoustical dream: Abravanel Hall celebrates its 25th anniversary", Deseret News, 10 September 2004