The project promised to transform Salt Lake City — a distinctive new civic arena that would bolster a bid for the Winter Olympics, built alongside a new concert hall on the same downtown block.
But when the Salt Palace opened in 1969, the site for Symphony Hall remained a parking lot. Construction bids had been about $4 million more than the architects’ estimates. Symphony board member Obert C. Tanner — chairman of a commission charged with getting the hall built — “reluctantly” agreed to forego it, “reserving our plans to use the location ... when funds might be available,” he wrote.
Conductor Maurice Abravanel did not take it well. “My board has betrayed me! My board has betrayed me!” he exclaimed, “beside himself” at the decision, according to his biographer, Leon Durham.
“For the board, it was essentially a political-business decision arrived at objectively,” Durham wrote in his 1989 biography “Abravanel!” “For the Maestro it was personal and emotional — his heart and soul.”
Symphony Hall would open 10 years later, on Sept. 14, 1979. “It was a thrill from the get-go,” with its stunning acoustics and design, said violinist LoiAnne Eyring, who is beginning her 58th season with the Utah Symphony.
Abravanel signed her when she was 16 and the symphony was performing (rent-free) in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. It’s known for how a speaker can be heard throughout the structure. But with more than 5,000 seats (at the time) and that giant, domed roof, “you get 85 musicians all playing different parts at the same time and it’s just all a muddy mess,” Eyring said.
“The sound is distorted in an unnatural way. You couldn’t get a good balance from section to section. The bass players on one side of the orchestra and the brass section on the other side could not hear each other.”
During recording sessions, “We would all bring in blankets, quilts, coats and lay them all throughout the Tabernacle to soak up the sound and cut down on all that resonance.”
But with Symphony Hall — later renamed Abravanel Hall — the acoustics came first. Here’s that story, and other tales from the hall’s history.
‘Let’s make a deal’
In 1972, then-Gov. Cal Rampton proposed building the symphony hall to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. After voters approved a 1975 bicentennial arts bond to help pay for it, Abravanel approached construction committee chairman Jack Gallivan, publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune. The vote completed a yearslong struggle to get the hall funded, and the men were at a celebration.
“I said, ‘OK, Jack. Let’s make a deal. I’ll stay out of your way if you call this man and put him in charge,” Abravanel said in a 1986 interview on KUED-Channel 7. “I gave him Cyril Harris’ phone number at Columbia University.”
An acoustician and professor at Columbia, Harris was known for the sound at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Avery Fisher Hall, the John F. Kennedy Center and “correcting the acoustical disaster in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall.”
According to Abravanel, “Symphony Hall is the only one in the world where, instead of first hiring an architect and telling him to consult an acoustician, it was the other way around.”
Window to the past
During the design phase, architect Franklin T. Ferguson of FFKR Architects drove to the empty parking lot, which had been donated by the LDS Church. He stood on the back of a parked truck and looked toward the Tabernacle, which had been the symphony’s home since 1946.
“At that point, I knew the lobby of the building had to be transparent,” Ferguson wrote in a 2004 remembrance.
The hall’s dramatic 5,400-square-foot glass facade was shipped to Utah from England.
By tradition, the fabric on the seats in most concert halls tend to be red or burgundy. The seats in Abravanel Hall are green — because Ferguson had worn a forest green sweater to the building site one day and held his arm up against the brick and wood.
“It just clicked,” he later recalled. His sweater was used to develop color samples.
Cleaning the crystal
The six, 16-foot-by-16-foot chandeliers suspended from the hall’s ceiling have 18,000 crystals imported from then-Czechoslovakia and Austria.
It took members of the Symphony Guild and the orchestra a week to polish and hang all the crystals before the opening.
“We all put on white gloves to polish and hang them so that there would be no fingerprints,” Eyring said, “... [on] those thousands upon thousands of little crystals.”
The chandeliers, which are held up by one-ton winches, are lowered once a year to be dusted, polished and have lightbulbs replaced.
Music in a shoebox
The concert hall’s design is a basic rectangle. But, at Harris’ insistence, there are no 90-degree angles; the walls are covered with curved panels to accentuate sound.
The stage has no proscenium to interfere with the acoustics; there’s no curtain and no carpets in the hall — the only fabric is on the chairs.
According to Ferguson, Harris said the “shoebox design” would make it impossible “to arrange the seating so that each seat would have an unobstructed view of the podium.”
But architect Joe Ruben took that as a challenge, and “created a simple design in which every spectator has a direct line of vision to the conductor’s podium and orchestra” — considered a “major breakthrough in the shoebox design,” Ferguson wrote in 2004.
A golden addition
The building was nearing completion; the carpets had been laid. But then “Mr. [Obert C.] Tanner thought we should have gold leaf on the big wall in the grand lobby,” later recalled project manager Svend Jensen from John Price Associates Inc., which managed the construction of the hall (see more below). “So he had the gold shipped in from Italy. It took us eight days to put up all that gold.”
The 12,000 square feet of 24-karate gold leaf in Abravanel Hall extends up the bannister and into the hall itself, all applied by hand.
At the hall’s opening in 1979, columnist Molly Ivins of The New York Times wrote that “the city’s suspenders are already straining with pride” over the “handsome, angular, glass-and-buff-brick affair.” She added, however, there was “some anxiety that all the gold leaf in the lobby may be too” much.
After the premiere concert, Donal Henahan wrote for The New York Times that the hall was a “fascinating mix of solidity and glitter,” and the “sound was rich and well-blended in the middle and lower ranges without sacrificing clarity.”
By the numbers
It took three years to build the $12 million hall, which is about 160 feet long, 90 feet wide and 55 feet high. It seats 2,768 — 1,800 on the orchestra level, 405 on the first tier, 305 on the second tier and 258 on the third tier.
Missing the Maestro
Abravanel was there the night Symphony Hall opened — but he was seated in a box beside the stage. If it had been completed as scheduled, he would have conducted his final season with the Utah Symphony in the new building.
But the opening in September 1979 was five months after Abravanel — who underwent heart surgery in late 1976 — retired “on the advice of my doctor.”
Abravanel declined repeated requests to return as a guest conductor. He never conducted a single note in the building that, in 1993, was renamed in his honor.
“I remember feeling like, ‘Oh, of course he’ll come back,’” Eyring said. “But once he laid down the baton, he was loyal to that decision. He wouldn’t do it. It was heartbreaking. And I think that’s why so many people who loved him worked so hard that the name was finally changed to Abravanel Hall.”
Abravanel was the music director of the Utah Symphony from 1947-1979, building it into a world-renowned orchestra and leading the effort to build it a permanent home. He was born in 1903 in what is today Greece; it was then part of the Ottoman Empire. His family moved to Switzerland in 1909; he moved to Germany in 1922 and left for France in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power.
Abravanel immigrated to New York in 1936, becoming the youngest-ever conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. He became a U.S. citizen in 1943 and moved in 1947 to Utah — where he spent the rest of his life.
“There are those who say I built the new Symphony Hall,” he once said. “I didn’t build it! My musicians did.”
Five months after the hall was named for him, Abravanel died at the age of 90. The public viewing was held in the lobby; the funeral was conducted in the hall itself.
While the concert hall has remained essentially unchanged since the building opened, there has been some remodeling in the lobby — and Ferguson wasn’t happy about it when he penned his remembrance for the building’s 25th anniversary in 2004.
“Over the years indiscriminate, unwelcome changes have occurred in the lobby all of which have diminished the visual strength of the original composition,” he wrote. “Nevertheless the nascent energy of the space, though now somewhat obscure, is still evident.”
The Olympic addition
Since 2001, the lobby has been home to a towering 27-foot high glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, made up of 1,276 pieces of hand-blown, red, orange and yellow glass and inspired by the Olympic flame.
Private donors and the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee paid $625,000 for “Olympic Tower.” But Chihuly gave them a discount on the piece, which was valued at $900,000 — with a couple of strings attached.
First, it has to stay in Abravanel Hall and not be moved elsewhere. And second, it has to be visible to everyone, not just audience members who buy tickets to a show. The enormous glass wall makes that possible.
(And the entire thing has to be dusted every six weeks.)
Celebrating the 40th
Owned by Salt Lake County, as part of its Center for the Arts, the hall today welcomes musicians, performers, speakers and more; comedian Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled there on Oct. 5.
At its Friday and Saturday performances of “The Planets," the Utah Symphony will celebrate the hall’s 40 years with Ludwig van Beethoven’s “The Consecration of the House” Overture, commissioned for and performed at the 1822 opening of Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstad.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years,” Eyring said. “And it’s still just gorgeous. Don’t you love going there?”
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.