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‘Always striving for something better': At 75th anniversary, Utah Symphony continues building on Abravanel’s legacy

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SALT LAKE CITY — World War II had been raging in Europe for almost a year when Hans Henriot led the Utah State Symphony Orchestra in its first concert on May 8, 1940.

Seventy-five years later, the organization has seen many changes, including its name — it became the Utah Symphony in 1946 — and has been led by seven conductors, performed in concert halls all over the world, received numerous awards and produced hundreds of recordings, according to a history on the organization’s website.

Today, the Utah Symphony includes 85 full-time professional musicians who play in over 175 concerts each season, and it is ranked among the top symphonies in the country.

“It is astonishing,” said Pat Richards, interim CEO of the Utah Symphony. “The fact that a community this size has such an incredibly great orchestra is such a credit not only to the orchestra and the people that run it, but to the community.”

The combined efforts of many, including patrons, donors, participants and directors, have contributed to the symphony’s success. One of the names most strongly associated with the symphony today is that of Maurice Abravanel. During his 32-year career as music director of the symphony, Abravanel had an immeasurable impact on the musicians he led and the community for which they performed.

“(Abravanel) was always striving for something better and always putting forward the value of the arts,” Richards said. “Not just the symphony, but the value of the arts in the lives of the community, and I think that having a major orchestra as kind of the lead arts organization here has created an atmosphere of depth and culture that is very special.”

Thierry Fischer was familiar with Abravanel’s legacy long before he became the Utah Symphony’s seventh music director.

“When I first received the first offer to have a guesting week in Utah, honestly the only reason I went was because … this was Abravanel’s orchestra,” Fischer said. “This must be something special.”

The early days

Ralph Gochnour is a witness to Abravanel’s influence. He performed in the symphony as the second flutist for 43 years, from 1956-99, also serving for many of those years as the assistant principal flutist.

“People had the greatest respect for (Abravanel), all the way through, all of the musicians, and it was a sad day when he retired,” Gochnour said.

When Gochnour began performing with the symphony, rehearsals went from 6-8:30 p.m. six days a week, usually with an additional practice on Saturdays, he said. The symphony season was 20 weeks long and the basic salary was $50 per week. The men in the orchestra usually had a day job as well, and many of the women — between 30 and 50 percent of the orchestra were women, Gochnour estimated — were homemakers who sacrificed critical time with their families to share their musical talents.

“There wouldn’t be a Utah Symphony as we know it today had it not been for the early days and the sacrifices that people made,” Gochnour said.

The rehearsal schedules were later moved to the morning, which complicated things somewhat for those working during the day. As the symphony continued to expand, tour and gain more renown, Gochnour said, it required more time of the musicians until “it just came to the point that we couldn’t stretch it any further.”

Abravanel was aware of the strain on his musicians and was working toward a solution.

“(He) came to me and he said, ‘What would it take for you to just play in the symphony full time?’” Gochnour said, “I said, ‘Well, if you pay me the same salary as I would make as a full-time schoolteacher, I would agree to it.’ And he worked it out, and about the next year he approached everyone and said, ‘Well, we’re prepared to do this.’”

With the symphony’s musicians now working full time in that capacity, they were able to more fully devote themselves to their passion.

“I would say the thing that drove the symphony — and Abravanel, of course, was totally responsible for it — was the love of playing great music with a great conductor,” Gochnour said. “In all of my years, I never, never got bored; it was always something that I looked forward to, and I couldn’t think of a better way to have a career and make your livelihood with performing great music.”

Though he’s retired from the symphony, Gochnour and his wife, Rosie, maintain their love of its work and music with season tickets.

“I’m proud of the orchestra, the way that it is today,” Gochnour said. “It’s a very fine organization.”

Commitment to community

While Gochnour experienced Abravanel’s impact while performing in the symphony, Richard Nelson observed it from a patron’s perspective.

“I think Abravanel made the music community here,” said Nelson, 91. “I think the thing that was best is that he was involved in so many ways in the community; he was never happy just to be the conductor of the symphony, but he was also a part of the community. … He got really involved in the schools, and got really involved in the business community, too.”

Nelson, who has had season tickets to the symphony since the mid-1950s, witnessed Abravanel’s community efforts firsthand.

“I’ve always loved music and was involved in music and played a little bit on the piano and so on,” Nelson said. He began taking lessons in composition at the University of Utah about 30 years ago, he said, when the composer-in-residence program ran out of funds and was discontinued.

“I suggested I would offer to try and raise funds to restart (the program),” Nelson said.

Nelson worked alongside a small committee, but the fundraisers had a hard time gaining support until Abravanel encouraged them to use his name.

“That was really quite different,” Nelson said. “We had much more success from that.”

When the required funds were obtained, the program was reinstated and named for Abravanel; guest composers brought in through the program today carry the title of Maurice Abravanel Distinguished Visiting Composer.

“(Abravanel) was a very fine person,” Nelson said. “When he had an opportunity, he was very helpful.”

Supporting the legacy

Just as Abravanel used his influence to help others, many people and entities within the community have given generously of their time and means to support his work and the Utah Symphony.

Among these supporters are Lisa Eccles and her family.

For much of her life, she’s attended as many symphony concerts as she can, always sitting in the same spot: the first-tier box that her Uncle George and Aunt Dolores Dore “Lolie” Eccles maintained as their season tickets for numerous years.

“It is just a thrill to be there at the performances,” said Lisa Eccles, Eccles Foundation president and COO. “We’ve just treasured our time at Abravanel Hall, and it’s just a wonderful experience to get to be in the hall and listen to the live music.”

George and Dolores Eccles were philanthropists and leaders in the community for decades and were faithful patrons of the Utah Symphony throughout their lives. According to gsecclesfoundation.org, the foundation came into being to continue the Eccles’ “charitable vision” in supporting many organizations after George passed away in 1982.

“It’s been a privilege for us to carry on a long-term Eccles family tradition of support for the Utah Symphony,” said Spencer F. Eccles, Eccles Foundation chairman and CEO. “We’ve remained committed because as their foundation board, we share that firm belief in carrying out their wishes of the importance of the symphony to our community and state.”

The Eccles Foundation is the official season sponsor of the 75th anniversary season, and Lisa Eccles said the group takes great pride in helping support the symphony’s education and outreach programs, including the organization’s recent Mighty 5 Tour, where the orchestra put on free concerts at each of Utah’s five national parks.

“It really is touching more Utahns, and that’s one of our goals and objectives is to reach out into this great state,” Lisa Eccles said.

That outreach is another way in which the legacy of Abravanel’s work continues. Fischer said Abravanel’s ability to see what the symphony could accomplish beyond its concerts is among the special contributions he made during his time behind the podium.

“He had a vision and a commitment — a belief that, in a manner of speaking, only doing concerts has no sense,” Fischer said. “Concerts have to be part of a global plan.”

“Abravanel started an emphasis on our educational programs, on reaching out to young people throughout the state,” Richards said. “As a result of that, this organization has, I think, the most extensive educational outreach program in the nation. We touch the lives of over 170,000 kids a year in the state of Utah, and it is incredible.”

In addition to the Eccles Foundation, other current sponsors of the symphony include organizations such as the Larry H. and Gail Miller Foundation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation, Salt Lake County and Questar, as well as multiple other companies and individual private donors throughout the community. Lisa and Spencer Eccles cited O.C. Tanner and Wendell Ashton as being among those who joined George and Dolores Eccles in the beginning in their unwavering commitment to the growth of the Utah Symphony.

“This is Utah’s symphony,” Spencer Eccles said. “This is the people of Utah’s symphony, and we’re just proud and very, very happy to be part of the broad base of the support in this state and look forward to that continuing.”

Moving forward

Abravanel’s legacy continues to influence the Utah Symphony.

When Fischer first became music director in 2009, the board challenged him to build upon the past success of the orchestra and help the organization return to being a top-10 orchestra as it had been during the days of Abravanel.

“This was a vision which was presented to me by the board and the search committee, and I loved it,” Fischer said. “I think it was really a fantastic challenge and very motivating for a conductor to basically bring the orchestra to where it was at the end of Abravanel. … We are well on schedule.”

In May 2014, the Utah Symphony announced an extension on Fischer’s contract for an additional three years, through the 2018-19 season. By the end of the extension, Fischer will have been at the helm of the symphony for 10 years, and the decision to stay was one Fischer didn’t take lightly.

“It’s a conjunction of different aspects which made me extend my contract, and one of them is that we have collectively started the way of developing ourselves as an organization and I felt that we now need, after the time of changes and decisions and adapting to each other, we need the time to enjoy being together,” Fischer said.

Fischer took the vision to heart and planned and executed a series of challenging seasons that included Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Nielsen symphony cycles, culminating in the complete nine-symphony Mahler cycle in honor of Abravanel’s work, which will conclude during the 75th anniversary season.

Richards said this season also will include collaborations with Ballet West, the Madeleine Choir School, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Shakespeare Festival to honor Abravanel’s devotion to the other arts in the community.

Fischer plans to continue the momentum that will be created with the season programming, including a focus on recording, increased touring and additional innovative collaborations.

“It’s extremely motivating to continue this burst the whole organization is having at the moment at the start of this very important season,” Fischer said.

Fischer said the future of the symphony is a combination of building on the organization’s rich history while also using the personalities and talents of those currently involved to continue to enrich the community.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything really radically new that Maurice Abravanel or my predecessors have not thought about,” Fischer said. “I completely respect every single thing that has been done before I arrived, so it’s just extending all these wonderful things which have been done before.”

And others agree that the past will continue to propel the organization into a bright future.

“From Maurice Abravanel to Joseph Silverstein to Keith Lockhart and now Thierry Fischer, we are fortunate in this state to have benefited and been lifted by the talents of these great maestros and musicians,” Lisa Eccles said. “It has enriched our community and enhanced our lives, and all of us together, our entire state, can take pride in the celebration of 75 years, a milestone that few organizations can match.”

“I’m proud of the orchestra, the way that it is today,” Gochnour said. “It’s a very fine organization.”

Email: rbrutsch@deseretnews.com