Music played an important role in the lives of the Mormon settlers in the Salt Lake Valley and its surrounding regions. The pioneers brought many instruments with them and constructed others from the materials available to them in the new home. Nevertheless, it took several attempts and many decades to finally establish a permanent, professional symphony orchestra in Utah. The Utah Symphony has developed from its ancestral roots to become a leader among the country's thirty major orchestras. The task was accomplished through the efforts of community leaders, the talents of musicians and conductors, and "spit, baling wire, and mirrors," according to Joseph Silverstein, fourth music director of the organization.
Salt Lake City residents enjoyed the performance of a local orchestra at the first (and only) concert of the Salt Lake Symphony in 1892. Ten years later the Salt Lake Symphony Orchestra Association was formed; it lasted nine years before finances and competing interests took their toll and the orchestra folded. In 1913 a group of local musicians formed the Salt Lake Philharmonic, an organization which lasted until 1925, at which time it too succumbed to the same ailments as its predecessors.
In the midst of the Great Depression, the Federal Music Project under the Works Progress Administration selected Reginald Beales to manage a music project in Utah. Beales was charged with employing indigent musicians registered on the public relief rolls. The Utah State Sinfonletta was formed with a core of five players in 1935. In less than five years the orchestra grew and traveled thousands of miles, performing 1,012 concerts to 348,000 listeners in every part of the state.
With the improving economy, federal funds to the orchestra were decreased, but Beales and community supporters insisted that the orchestra survive. On 4 April 1940 the first meeting of the Utah State Symphony Orchestra Association was held, electing Fred E. Smith as president. The Association was ambitious, planning a concert on 8 May 1940, only a month away. Hans Heniot was invited to conduct the trial performance. The concert was a success and Heniot was elected by the board to serve as conductor of the orchestra.
In 1946 the board chose a new name for the orchestra, the Utah Symphony, and engaged a new conductor, Werner Janssen. A year later, amid financial difficulties the board sought out another conductor who would nurture the local tenor of the orchestra while building a permanent, professional organization. The board found such a person in Maurice Abravanel. Although initially offered only a one-year contract, Abravanel assured the board that he would remain until the task was finished. The Maestro became the inspiration and power behind the symphony for the next thirty-two years.
Maurice Abravanel came to an organization steeped in financial problems. In 1948, Glenn Walker Wallace was elected president of the Utah Symphony Board and used her own funds to shore up the sagging financial structure. Raising sufficient funds had always proved a challenge, but unlike earlier versions, the Utah Symphony survived.
Abravanel realized that recordings would prove financially valuable as well as establish the reputation of the symphony by bringing its music to millions of people outside of Utah. The symphony was recognized for its expertise in performing works of Mahler and it recorded that composer's ten symphonies in one year. Between 1957 and 1985, over 2,000,000 copies of more than 120 different album recordings of the Utah Symphony were sold through-out the world.
Continuing the commitment to reach all areas of the state as well as the world, the Utah Symphony was dedicated to performing in Utah. The orchestra's touring schedules regularly included the schools and small communities throughout the state. In 1966 the orchestra launched the first European tour with a debut concert in New York's Carnegie Hall. The symphony was one of the first western U.S. orchestras to tour internationally.
From 1946 to 1979 the Utah Symphony called the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square home. As part of the state's Bicentennial Arts Center Complex, the $10 million Symphony Hall was completed for the 1979-80 season. The hall's acoustics rival those of the world's finest auditoriums and in 1993 it was renamed Abravenel Hall in honor of the conductor. However, Maestro Abravanel never raised his baton to conduct in the new facility, retiring at the end of the 1978-79 season. Varujan Kohjian was selected as musical director/conductor. He left at the end of his three-year contract. In 1983, Joseph Silverstein, an accomplished conductor and violinist, was engaged as "artistic director" on a trial basis. The relationship between board, symphony, and conductor successfully clicked and Silverstein took the post of music director and conductor.
The Utah Symphony performed its 5,000th concert on 1 February 1986. It is recognized as having the busiest concert schedule of any orchestra in the country. The Utah Symphony takes pride in its unique Utah character, with a large proportion of native musicians in the organization. The goals of the symphony have not changed in its long history. The orchestra continually strives to polish the musicianship of its players while maintaining adequate funding for a professional symphony orchestra. True to its pioneer roots, the Utah Symphony continues to bring music to the people of Utah and to an appreciative segment of the world.
See: Conrad B. Harrison, Five Thousand Concerts: A Commemorative History of the Utah Symphony (1986).