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Utah Symphony: Giving Utah a 'shower of sounds'

Editor's note: This is the second story in a series highlighting arts organizations around Utah.

It all begins with a flick of the maestro’s baton. The signal ushers in the first stroke of a violin, a chord on the piano, or a burst of notes from a united orchestra and results in what the Utah Symphony’s music director, Thierry Fischer, calls a “shower of sounds.”

“You are surrounded by this invisible energy,” Fischer said. “And then to share this with an audience and in a community, with the fact that they know something is happening in the Abravanel Hall, is what matters.”

The “something” that is happening at the Abravanel Hall is approximately 60 performances by the Utah Symphony each year with dozens more happening throughout the state. With a rich history spanning 74 years, the symphony is a deeply rooted fixture in Utah’s cultural scene. The organization continues to reach out to the community through educational programs, breaking stereotypes as it moves forward into a bright future.

“It’s a cultural anchor in many ways,” said Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of Utah Symphony and Utah Opera. “It’s all about excellence in building the orchestra to be the best it can be, and excellence is driving the vision.”

Vision and mission

The joint Utah Symphony and Utah Opera organization website describes its vision to offer access to live music in three simple phrases: “To perform. To engage. To inspire.”

Fischer further expounded upon the symphony’s objective by listing four guiding principles: the urge for excellence, education, sharing and the role of beauty in the community.

The existence of the symphony is almost an anomaly in the current artistic landscape where orchestral music is readily available through in-home media. It’s one of only 15 orchestras throughout the United States that offer 52-week contracts to their players.

“When you sit in a hall, even if you don’t know your neighbor, the feeling you experience — this massive loud sound of the brass section, or the softness of string, going from one drama to the other because every symphony is a story — it will never be replaced by what you experience individually at home,” Fischer said. “We’re building the collective at the service of the community.”

And community is the driving force behind the mission of the symphony. Tourangeau described it as an important place where people “share humanity.”

“That’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to have the symphony in a community, because it is a place where people can go and relax and unwind and come together as a community and just be inspired by great music,” said Jon Miles, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera vice president of marketing and communications.

The symphony supports the community and the community supports the symphony in a reciprocal process. Local companies and foundations such as the Eccles Foundation, O.C. Tanner Company, Zions Bank, LDS Church Foundation and the Larry H. Miller companies are among the supporters of the symphony, Tourangeau said. And in turn, the symphony’s ability to financially support 85 full-time professional musicians allows the organization to give back in the community through various outreach programs.

“It’s built by its community, it’s supported by its community and it’s owned by its community,” Tourangeau said.

Building on a rich history

The Utah Symphony’s legacy in the community began in the organization’s infancy.

According to the history on the symphony’s website, Hans Henriot conducted the first concert of the then-Utah State Symphony Orchestra on May 8, 1940. Six years later, in 1946, the orchestra’s name was changed to the Utah Symphony. The symphony called the Tabernacle on Temple Square home for more than three decades as it continued to grow and provide orchestral music for the people of Utah.

The Utah Symphony gained global recognition during Maurice Abravanel’s 32-year tenure as music director. The symphony went on numerous national and four international tours throughout Europe and Central and South America, released more than 100 recordings and became a nationally ranked musical organization all while Abravanel was at the helm of the orchestra. Included in those 100 recordings were all nine of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, a feat which will be celebrated over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons with a Mahler symphony cycle to celebrate the symphony’s upcoming 75th anniversary.

Abravanel’s legacy is still seen today. The symphony moved into its current home bearing his name, Abravanel Hall, in 1979. Subsequent music directors Varujan Kojian, Joseph Silverstein and Keith Lockhart built on Abravanel’s foundation. Fischer likewise continues to look to his example.

“The work (Abravanel did) in the community, the way he supported education, the way he also toured and recorded with the orchestra is an example for many, many other music directors in the world,” Fischer said. “I’m not ashamed to say as many times as I have to that Abravanel has been my inspiration to actually take this job (as music director).”

The Utah Symphony merged with the Utah Opera in 2002 to encourage continued growth and provide music to the community. The Utah Symphony and Utah Opera look to the past to create the future.

“We’re looking at the next era for the orchestra, but we’re certainly standing on big shoulders,” Tourangeau said. “There’s a great legacy here, and we couldn’t be where we are now without that legacy and what was built before us.”

Breaking the stereotype

Part of the mission of the Utah Symphony is to serve the people of Utah by breaking the stereotype of who attends the symphony.

Tourangeau explained that many people view an orchestra as “living in an ivory tower,” an untouchable entity to those who may have limited experience with orchestral music.

Renee Huang, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera director of public relations, said people often feel intimidated walking into a formal building like Abravanel Hall. The symphony, however, provides resources to help guests overcome the trepidation. Educational materials about each symphony are provided online. Concerts that are part of the Masterworks series include the opportunity for ticketholders to go before the concert and hear the conductor give background information and answer questions about the program.

“(People) may say, ‘Well, I don’t really know too much about this music.’ Well, just come a little bit early, and you’ll learn a little bit more,” Huang said.

Fischer encouraged everyone to come to the symphony regardless of previous experience. He compared the symphony to going to an art museum. Guests see pieces of artwork in a museum and may not understand every symbol or curve the artist uses in the piece, but beauty can still be seen. He explained that someone might not know everything about a composer or piece of music, but he or she can still enjoy the experience.

“I think that people feel it’s not for them, but it is,” Miles said. “Their neighbors are going, lots of people in the community are going, so they just need to pick a date and give it a try and go see if they enjoy it.”

Educational outreach

One of the things the Utah Symphony is most well-known for is its commitment to education.

“What we do here (at Abravanel Hall) is incredibly important, but equally as important as the educational outreach into the schools and into the communities throughout Utah,” Tourangeau said.

The symphony’s website states that the organization’s education programs had received national acclaim as early as 1947: “During Abravanel’s tenure, the orchestra’s music education program grew into one of the most extensive arts education programs in the region. Educational concerts were given on orchestra tours across the intermountain west and at home in the Salt Lake Valley, enriching the lives of generations of schoolchildren.”

Fischer said the orchestra touches every school in the state every three years through full orchestra, chamber orchestra or conductor visits.

In addition to school visits, the Utah Symphony also offers special concerts to fifth-graders throughout the Salt Lake, Granite, Canyons, Murray, Jordan and Davis school districts, among others. More than 20,000 teachers and students participate in the program each year. The schools receive instructional material prepared by the symphony’s docents ahead of time to prepare the students for their visit.

“(The fifth-grade concerts) are tied to the curriculum in the schools, so the students are able to relate to the material they are hearing in the hall in other ways as well,” said Leslie Peterson, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera vice president of development. “It’s a cross-curricular opportunity when they come to the hall to hear a performance.”

Peterson noted that these educational opportunities affect the future of the symphony. “It’s amazing how many of our regular attendees started out by coming to one of those fifth-grade docent concerts,” she said.

Fischer likewise recognized the importance of education as a shining star among the symphony’s programs.

“I couldn’t be as proud of the Utah symphony as I am without the education commitment we are having toward our community,” he said.

A look at the future

Its clear vision, rich history, boundary-pushing and educational outreach all point to a path of growth for the symphony.

The Utah Symphony has seen a lot of changes since Fischer’s appointment as its seventh music director. Fischer has approached his position as director aggressively, paying homage to the tradition of the symphony while pushing boundaries in programming. He has also made 30 new appointments to the orchestra in his time with the symphony.

“We do our best to spread the vision,” Fischer said. “This urge for excellence is something very, very important to me, and this excellence is part in carrying the whole organization. Without being negative — it’s all very positive — that we’re never good enough; every day we can be better.”

Fischer and Tourangeau both expressed that the way the symphony will excel is through continuing to reach out in the community as well as extending its influence outside Utah. Goals include national and international tours and building the organization to be one of the top 12 symphonies in the country, as it was during the Abravanel years.

“A lot of our players before had a great legacy and built the story with Maurice Abravanel back in the day, and now the next generation is coming forward,” Tourangeau said. “To be doing that in tandem with our 75th anniversary and Thierry’s leadership is really exciting.”

If you go …

What: Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Utah Symphony

When: Feb. 28 and March 1, 8 p.m.

Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple

Tickets: $18-$69

Information: or 801-355-2787