‘No amount of money’ could convince symphony musicians to give up their home in Abravanel Hall

May 30, 2024, 4:29 PM | Updated: 9:16 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — While decisions about revitalizing downtown Salt Lake City are still in the public comment period, many remain concerned about the future of Abravanel Hall.

As the Utah Symphony orchestra members performed their final concerts of the 2023 – 2024 season, they found themselves still worried about a possible demolition of their home, Abravanel Hall.

David Porter, who plays the violin, represented his colleagues and spoke about the concerns they have.

“It’s such a personal thing,” he said. “It’s like losing a great piece of art and throwing it in the trash.”

In recent public hearings and with a release of “renovate or rebuild plans” from Salt Lake County, Porter and his colleague, Becky Johnson, are concerned about misconceptions of the costs for both.

“A narrative has taken hold that it is cheaper to rebuild than it is to renovate. And that is very disturbing, because we’ve done a lot of research and that‘s a real misunderstanding,” Porter said.

The musicians agree with the county’s master plan that a new sprinkler system, air conditioning/heating upgrade and ADA compliance are “must dos.” The rest, they said is a wish list.

Porter and Johnson said a Salt Lake County study done seven years ago showed renovation costs totaled $40 million. Porter explained that between the 2016 study and the 2024 proposal, somehow the cost went up by a whopping $160 million.

So, the renovation costs are now $200 million. Porter and Johnson believe that rebuilding would cost much more than that. They have looked at concert halls built around the U.S. decades ago that cost more than $200 million.

Lead architect of Abravanel Hall says demolition plans are motivated by disposable mentality

The musicians fear the plan is not to build a concert hall but instead a multi-purpose theatre.

“We’re going to replace your grandfather’s Rolex with your son’s Apple Watch, you know. You think it’s got all these really cool features, but it’s fundamentally not nearly as valuable,” Porter said.

Abravanel Hall construction started in 1976 and was completed in 1979. New plans, the musicians say, would certainly displace the symphony for a time.

“That would affect our revenue that would affect our jobs,” Johnson said. “That would affect the ability of the symphony of the Utah Symphony organization to give to fulfill contract obligations with the musicians. It would be and not to mention, the people in the county that work there that would be out of work.”

A painting of Maurice Abravanel.

A painting of Maurice Abravanel. (KSL TV)

Bree Scheer is a member of the Salt Lake City Planning Commission, an architect and former Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Utah.

“When you’re in Abravanel Hall, you’re having an experience. It’s an aesthetic experience. It’s a beautiful experience,” she said.

The reason, according to her, is because of the building’s acoustics — real sound, no microphones.

“Twenty-eight hundred people can hear it, just like it’s in your living room. And it’s remarkable! What it means is that the hall itself is kind of the most important instrument.”

No multi-purpose performance hall can replace this, she said.

“So as we live our lives, you know, we have a relationship with these buildings that make us want to keep them. We want to hold on to that relationship. That’s what makes it a monument, when we collectively decide that it’s an important part of our lives,” she said. “That’s what why monuments get preserved all over the world.”

Not only does Abravanel Hall house the state’s premiere arts organization, but it is also an architectural landmark.

“This hall was a gift by the Salt Lake County taxpayers,” Porter said. “Not just to the symphony, but to great art. It’s architecturally beautiful. It’s acoustically transcendent. And I firmly believe that we owe it to the people who created that hall to preserve it.”

“In my view, there’s no amount of money that would make me want to tear down that hall,” Scheer said.

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‘No amount of money’ could convince symphony musicians to give up their home in Abravanel Hall