If Abravanel Hall is unavailable, where might Utah Symphony go?

Other concert halls in the Salt Lake Valley have their issues, from seating capacity to acoustics.

For weeks, the fate of Abravanel Hall, the home of the Utah Symphony has remained in the air, amid discussions about revitalizing downtown Salt Lake City.

The big question has been what might happen to the 45-year-old concert hall as the city and Smith Entertainment Group propose an “entertainment district” between the Delta Center and City Creek Center. Early drafts suggested either tearing down and replacing the hall — a move music fans rallied and petitioned to oppose — or renovating it, a project with an estimated price tag of more than $200 million.

David Porter, a violinist for the Utah Symphony and a spokesperson for the Musicians of the Utah Symphony group, said one of their union’s core concerns is “that there is a narrative that’s being dispersed that there are only two options” — to renovate the hall, or to tear it down and replace it.

With either option, there remains another question: Where can the 90 musicians of the Utah Symphony go in the meantime?

“While it would be challenging logistically and financially, the symphony would continue to perform in other venues,” said Steve Brosvik, USUO President & CEO. “All creative options and opportunities would be explored in order to ensure that we carry on our mission to connect the community through great live music — and community support would be essential in order to manage through that time period.”

Cami Munk, spokesperson for Salt Lake County Arts & Culture (which operates Abravanel Hall), responded with a statement, saying the county “will work closely with USUO to support temporary relocation plans during any potential construction period.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Tabernacle — seen here in May 2024, for the announcement of a new hymnbook for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — was home to the Utah Symphony for decades, before Symphony Hall, now Abravanel Hall, opened in 1979.

There are a handful of other performing arts venues in Utah, but switching venues is not a simple task, said Robert L. Baldwin, a professor and director of orchestras at the University of Utah’s School of Music.

“How much availability are in these other sites is a big question,” said Baldwin, who conducts the Salt Lake Symphony and has served as a substitute player in the Utah Symphony.

Availability can be broken down into two major factors: Seating capacity and season scheduling. Most other Salt Lake County venues already have their 2024-2025 seasons announced and booked.

“All of those Salt Lake County facilities they’ve built, but it’s a numbers game,” Baldwin said. “As far as number of inches on the stage, and the number of seats for audience and the budget for the orchestra.”

Abravanel Hall, for example, has a seating capacity of 2,766. Compare that to smaller halls, such as Libby Gardner Hall at the University of Utah (seating capacity: 680) or the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville (capacity: 440).

The closest alternatives to Abravanel Hall, geographically, are the Salt Lake Tabernacle (seating capacity: 3,500) and Eccles Theater (seating capacity: 2,468). But some venues pose musical and architectural challenges.

“The Eccles would be very challenging because there’s no orchestra shell. It wasn’t made for acoustical music, it was made for Broadway productions,” Baldwin said. “That’s a challenge, no matter if there is no other place like Abravanel Hall acoustically.”

Porter, with the musicians’ union, agreed, and said Eccles “is designed for amplified music.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The lobby of the Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. Musicians say it's more suited for Broadway shows than symphony performances.

The Tabernacle, on Temple Square, is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Unless the church changes their rules, you cannot sell tickets, you cannot charge admission and hold events on that property,” Baldwin said.

Porter noted that the Tabernacle was the Utah Symphony’s home before Abravanel Hall opened in 1979. “That’s the reason the hall is faced the way it is, a homage to our past, to a path that’s a really distinctive and exceptional architectural gem,” Porter said.

However, Porter said, the Tabernacle is “just too echoey, so you can’t really hear what we’re doing well in that at all.”

Baldwin said there’s also a worry of space for the musicians on an actual stage, as well as room for specialized chairs, equipment and backstage space.

“Depending on the music, there can be up to 100 musicians on the stage,” he said, adding that a smaller stage would mean the orchestra would have a smaller repertoire.

There are “wonderful facilities” outside of Salt Lake Valley, Baldwin said, such as the Noorda Center for Performing Arts at Utah Valley University, where Utah Symphony is scheduled to perform three concerts next season. However, he said, “that takes the orchestra away from their main audience base. I’m not sure how many people would regularly travel 40-45 miles to see the orchestra every week.”

The symphony, like many other arts and culture groups, learned to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, Baldwin said. “But until [the Utah Symphony] get[s] some answers, they really can’t build a plan. They’re in emergency mode right now,” he said.

Porter — whose Utah Symphony musicians’ group is part of the American Federation of Musicians union — said the musicians feel like “stewards” of Abravanel Hall for the people who built it and “the taxpayers who voted to have it built.”

“Abravanel Hall is a great hall acoustically and architecturally,” Porter said. “Architects love it, musicians love it and the audience just love it. That is just such a rare thing to have. It’s really hard to build a great artistic concert hall”

Porter — who wrote an op-ed in June in which he wrote about playing violin all over the world and declaring “there’s nowhere like Abravanel Hall” — told The Salt Lake Tribune that the idea that Abravanel Hall is easily replaceable is “just not the case.”

In a text to The Tribune, Porter wrote, “If I were to sum up the [musicians’] concerns in one sentence, it’s that replacing Abravanel Hall with a new hall will be like replacing grandpa’s Rolex with your son’s Apple Watch. While the Apple Watch may be new and shiny and have lots of features, it’s ultimately far less valuable and imminently expendable.”

Who’s got the room?

Here’s a list of major venues in Salt Lake County, and their seating capacity. (For comparison, Abravanel Hall seats 2,766 concertgoers.)

  • Capitol Theatre, downtown SLC — Seating capacity: 1,876.

  • Eccles Theater, downtown SLC — Seating capacity: 2,468.

  • Kingsbury Hall, U. of Utah campus — Seating capacity: 1,992.

  • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, U. of Utah campus — Seating capacity: 680.

  • Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center, Taylorsville — Seating capacity: 440.

  • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, downtown SLC — Seating capacity: 501.

  • Salt Lake Tabernacle, downtown SLC — Seating capacity: 3,500.