Maurice Abravanel’s Legacy: Passion for access to the arts and Utah Symphony’s outreach to local and rural schools

The fascinating life and remarkable legacy of Maurice Abravanel has left a permanent mark on the music community in Utah. After an immensely successful early career conducting around the world and becoming the youngest conductor ever hired by New York’s Metropolitan Opera at the age of 33, Abravanel, offered the opportunity to “have his own symphony,” took the position as Music Director of the very little known Utah Symphony, a group of part-time local musicians. But he saw the potential and turned his 1 year contract into more than 30 years of impassioned service from 1947 to 1979.

Abravanel said, “I feel that some of my greatest musical experiences with the symphony were in high school gymnasiums.”

During his tenure with the Utah Symphony, Abravanel created a world-renowned, professional orchestra—one of only 15 in the United States that presently sustain a full-time symphony. What is less known about his service was that he was also a champion for the greater community of the arts in Utah, particularly for schoolchildren. Maurice Abravanel cared deeply for his adopted home in Utah and “he got to know the community beautifully,” according to symphony violinist, Frances Darger. Abravanel inaugurated Utah’s first dedicated arts outreach to schools, performing as many school concerts as possible across the intermountain west, garnering enough interest to be featured in the New York Times for his education outreach. This love for the community and belief in the inspiration that music can bring to children motivated him to become the principal advocate for the Professional Outreach Programs in the Schools (POPS) funding from the Utah State Legislature in 1975, with assistance from Senator Haven Barlow—the longest serving legislator in Utah history. Overtime, POPS grew to include funding for the Utah Opera, Ballet West, Utah Shakespeare Festival and others to provide outreach to Utah schools.  Currently, because of these efforts, up to 400,000 K-12 students each year, have access to world-class performing arts to enrich their lives and education. Because of this program, Utah Symphony still gives school performances but now they are able to reach every school district in the state (on 3 year cycles), performing more than 40 in-school concerts per year as well as 10 concerts for 5th graders in Abravanel Hall each spring.

Michael McDonald, theatre teacher and district arts coordinator in Eureka, Utah, expressed great appreciation and need for the program: “We have a really small community with high poverty rates and minimal access to fine arts and so it’s amazing that they can make it out here for a concert and have time with the kids.” Symphony concerts in rural areas will often also welcome the community to attend the performance at the school, or do an additional evening performance to include all community members.

The many advocates for the POPS outreach program and Utah Symphony | Utah Opera over the years include Senator Margaret Dayton who has tirelessly advocated for the arts, Utah Symphony and the POPS program; Senator Haven Barlow’s son, Representative Stewart Barlow, who has continued his father’s passion for service and making the arts accessible; as well as Representative Patrice Arent.

Arent recalls her experiences with Abravanel, who was part of her Jewish community growing up: “He loved to talk to younger people, like me, about music and what the symphony was doing—his enthusiasm was incredibly contagious.” Abravanel’s insistence that “every concert was the most important concert,” according to cellist Bonnie Mangold, was what created that accessibility for children that he loved providing in concerts. A lot of the students found it difficult to understand his accent, but he enjoyed the performances immensely. He once said to symphony flutist Ralph Gochnour: “I feel that some of my greatest musical experiences with the symphony were in high school gymnasiums.” Current Utah Symphony trumpeter Jeff Luke comments after 13 years performing concerts in schools: “I think these performances were significant to Maestro Abravanel, as they are to me, because the kids are so appreciative. Many of them literally have never heard classical music before. They are happy to participate with us when it comes to clapping rhythms, or even dancing with the music, and they always give us an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of the concert. We know we have made a difference and that feels good.”

Representative Arent has also visited schools as a legislator for a variety of POPS concerts: “I can watch them become quiet and attentive when the program starts and they start to get excited about Shakespeare or Mozart for the first time. It’s just thrilling to be there.” Likewise Senator Margaret Dayton shares her experience living in rural Carbon County: “It was a highlight for the community to have the Symphony perform at Carbon High School on a regular basis.  [It] created culturally enhancing opportunities that many rural citizens would not otherwise have. Truly the citizens of our state are blessed and benefitted by the Utah Symphony.”

Utah Symphony Associate Conductor Rei Hotoda sits with students following a concert

Abravanel’s goals for his symphony and for music included that not only should music be performed in an emotional and connective way but also that it has the capacity to change lives. Craig Fineshriber, the principal percussionist in the orchestra for nine years during Abravanel’s tenure, recalled working with Abravanel on a difficult piece when the Maestro said “’We need to work harder on this part. Let’s make it beautiful. Not because you are musicians, but because you are human beings.’ And that’s the way he looked at it,” Fineshriber remarked, “Being a great musician or being a great anything makes you a better human being, and that’s what it’s about. That’s what art is about.” The tradition of sharing the life-changing power of music continues for generations of school children who have benefited not only from the beauty of music but of the personal development that it can nurture. Michael McDonald comments on his school’s recent visit from the Symphony and the individual time symphony members spent in the classroom:  “This year was the best time we’ve ever had with the symphony. It was so personal. It gave the kids a view into the path of person who has become a successful person, not just as a musician but as a member of society.”

While the prestige that Maestro Abravanel almost single-handedly created for the Utah Symphony would have been more than enough to create a prominent legacy, his passion for music and the arts brought him to desire that all people could access it and be inspired by it as he was. The breadth and depth of arts outreach provided by the POPS program, which also funds ongoing Utah Symphony outreach, stretches this legendary conductor’s legacy for generations beyond his own time.

You can learn more about Utah Symphony | Utah Opera educational opportunities and resources available by visiting

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USUO Family Spotlight: The Lyon Family

Kara and Blair Lyon pose with their son Jarrett at Abravanel Hall

The Lyon family is being recognized for their years of service and participation in Utah Symphony | Utah Opera (USUO) education programs and concerts. In this remarkable family of six, the love for their children and their connection with music as a source of healing in their lives is so apparent. Paula  Fowler, USUO’s Director of Education and Community Outreach has said, “They are just an indispensable, joyful part of our Utah Opera extended family. They are a family where everyone is born with music in their veins.”

The Lyon family is unlike most families you may ever meet. They are a very musical family and have two sons with autism. But what is most remarkable about them is their outlook on life and the perspective they carry with them in their unique family dynamic, caretaking for their 16-year-old son Jarrett, who is nonverbal and requires full-time care. Blair and Kara Lyon have four sons in total who have all been involved in music, including Jarrett who is very “musically sensitive,” as Blair describes him. Their oldest son Allyn, runs the music department at Beaver High School, teaching orchestra, choir, band and guitar; Treyson is currently serving an LDS mission in Mexico and has participated in musical theatre; Andrew is a trained singer with an associate degree in media music; and Jarrett is their youngest.

The Lyon Family poses with Utah Opera Resident Artists following the performance

The highlight of their participation with USUO has been the annual Access to Music concerts for families with children with special needs, of any age. They have been involved with the Access to Music concerts since they started in 2001 and they have performed as a family string group which has provided pre-concert music for the concerts for many years. “We are so grateful for the Access concerts. These kids can bounce around in their chairs, be loud and enjoy music in this free, uninhibited way and it makes me think this box of normalcy that the rest of us are stuck in can be really constraining. Jarrett sees the world and hears music in a different way and I think that is really special,” Kara says.

Kara was the one who first started the three oldest boys on the piano and is very musical and loves to sing. She uses what Blair calls her “music therapy skills” as she teaches young children to swim, including many with special needs. Blair, Kara’s husband, is a music specialist in the Salt Lake City School District and has taught for over 25 years. He said, “Music has always been a part of my life and we wanted that for our children.”

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Musical Curiosity: Ives Style

ives-photoThis season, Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer has programmed four symphonies by American composer Charles Ives.  Symphony No. 1 fits solidly into the late Romantic style.  In his other symphonies he exhibits his interest in experimental approaches, often applied to his trademark use of hymn tunes and traditional songs.

Charles Ives was fortunate to have a father who not only encouraged his son’s musical education, but believed in encouraging his son’s curiosity to explore and experiment with his musical voice.  George Ives explored music outside the “normal” bounds of music theory and composition, and his experiments had a deep influence on Charles’ thoughts about composition.

Contine reading

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“I can’t imagine where I would be now if I hadn’t seen that performance.”

Our Utah Opera in-the-schools programs are offered to every school in the state on a 3-5 year rotation plan. Our presentations are general assembly programs in which Utah’s students get to hear and see professional opera artists in action. We want our events to be inspiring, and we hope that teachers and students return to class and continue exploring their opera experience (we provide post-assembly suggestions in the teacher materials in that hope). Our artists get a lot of fan mail throughout the year, and they write back to all the classes who write to them. One young Park City student, for instance, recently wrote in his letter, “That was a great show! I want to see that show again. I like music just as much as you do. I am learning how to play the piano until I can play it just like Timothy [the pianist in our performing troupe].”

Contine reading

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Meet Madeline Adkins – Utah Symphony’s New Concertmaster

madeline-adkins-2015-photo-by-cassidy-duhon-08“From the moment I started working with the orchestra, they were so warm and friendly. There’s a unique spirit to the group and everyone really has such a great attitude and loves to play music. I’m really looking forward to being a part of that.”

~Madeline Adkins

The Utah Symphony is thrilled to welcome Madeline Adkins as she begins her role as concertmaster this 2016–17 season. Originally from the college town of Denton, Texas, Ms. Adkins knew from a young age that she wanted to become a musician. She is the youngest of eight children, six of whom are currently musicians. “My parents were music professors at the University of North Texas,” says Ms. Adkins. “We were encouraged to play starting at the age of five, and many of us continued professionally in orchestras around the country.”

Contine reading

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Paul Meecham Q&A


Utah Symphony | Utah Opera’s President and CEO Paul Meecham started July 1, 2016 after completing a final 100th anniversary season with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where he held the role of their chief executive for 10 years. He shares why he and his family are excited to move to Utah and start a new chapter.

Q: First of all, welcome to Utah. Everyone is thrilled to have someone with your vast industry experience. What factors influenced you to take the role as the President and CEO of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera?

A: Ultimately, it was an easy decision to make because of the people at USUO. In meeting with Thierry Fischer, Christopher McBeth, the board, staff and musicians, as well as several community leaders, I immediately sense a shared vision towards artistic and community excellence. I believe that the synergies created in merging the Symphony and the Opera have yet more potential to be tapped, and the success of the Deer Valley® Music Festival has added a whole new and exciting dimension.

Q: Among other things, Utah is known as a mecca for outdoor recreation, phenomenal geographic landscape and community involvement. Tell us what your family is excited about experiencing.

A: Well, we are certainly looking forward to the world-class skiing! And none in the family has ever visited the fabulous national and state parks in southern Utah. Also, I think my kids have already got their hearts set on Dinosaur National Monument! My wife and I love hiking, so couldn’t be happier in moving to Utah. We’ll have to see whether my thirteen-year old son and eleven-year old daughter will agree with us! Both our kids are keen on sports such as soccer and baseball, and my daughter rides horses, of which I’m told you have a few in the state! We are a close-knit family and have quickly picked up that Utah is a very family-friendly state so we expect to settle in very quickly.

Q: Utah has had a big year in the media, attracting attention as the best place for skiing, mountain biking, as well as earning accolades as the top state for business. What has surprised you most about Utah?

A: I think the biggest surprise has been the quality of all the arts. Obviously I was aware of the world-class symphony, but was less familiar with the equally high level of the opera, ballet, theater and visual arts scene.

Q: Your experience leading top-tier orchestras is widely known and respected in the classical music industry. We feel fortunate to have attracted a leader with such a great track record to help shape what is yet to come. Describe what you see in store for the future of the organization.

A: It’s perhaps too early to speak of an overarching vision yet—after all, I just began July 1! However, I will want to build upon the momentum that has developed during the 75th anniversary including the celebrated Carnegie Hall performance, the commercial recordings, and the artistic partnerships forged with the ballet, theater, and others. And just around the corner is another reason to celebrate—the 40th season of Utah Opera in 2017–18. There’s much to look forward to in the years ahead!

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Ghost Light Podcast Now Available on iTunes

Listen in on conversations related to orchestral music with the Utah Symphony’s new podcast, The Ghost Light. Each episode is 10-15 minutes long (perfect for a commute!) and focuses on topics related to the orchestra and classical music. The podcast is now five episodes in and past episodes have included conversations with Thierry Fischer, Mary Anne Huntsman, Mike Pape, Paul Meecham, and Christopher McBeth. The Utah Symphony’s General Manager and Vice President of Operations, Jeff Counts, hosts each episode.

If you were to walk on the stage in Abravanel Hall or Capitol Theater when the venue was closed and no one was there, you wouldn’t be alone in the dark. A ghost light is a single bulb that is left on and placed on the stage after each performance. There are different explanations for ghost lights, which is a tradition in most venues. Some believe it keeps ghosts away from the stage. Others think it appeases the ghosts and keeps them happy. The pragmatic see it as an important safety measure to keep people from falling over things that have been left on stage (or off the stage itself!). In that spirit, each episode includes a bonus feature – a ghost story!

You can now subscribe to Ghost Light via iTunes, Stitcher, or SoundCloud or search for “Utah Symphony” in your podcast app. New episodes are released each Monday.

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Between the Barlines – Pablo Villegas

During the 2016 Deer Valley Music Festival, the Utah Symphony has launched a weekly interview series entitled “Between the Barlines,” which seeks to reveal aspects of guest artists’ lives outside of the music for which they are known, including things such as their backgrounds, their influences, and their non-musical interests.

Nicknamed “The Soul of Spanish Guitar,” Pablo Villegas has won international acclaim for his guitar performances that are as passionate as they are intimate. Born and raised in the musically and culturally rich landscape of La Rioja, Spain, Pablo won the Andrés Segovia Award at the age of 15, launching a succession of international wins that include Gold Medal at the inaugural Christopher Parkening International Guitar Competition. He has since performed for both the Dalai Lama and the Spanish royal family, and it was he who gave the world premiere of Rounds, the first composition for guitar by five-time Academy Award-winner John Williams. A born communicator, Pablo explains: “Music is a social tool, and opening people’s hearts, and helping them connect to the inner life of the emotions, is my mission.”

In this interview, Pablo comments on his musical upbringing, from watching his hero Andrés Segovia on TV at the age of 6 to his early love for musical performance. A passionate and earnest personality, Pablo talks about his many hobbies from salsa dancing, to cooking with friends, to hiking. A man dedicated to inspiring the future generation, Pablo also discusses the emotional power of music, connecting and celebrating people with his performances and his non-profit organization, Music Without Borders Legacy.

When talking his upcoming performance at the Red Butte Garden with the Utah Symphony, Pablo says, ”When my management told me about this I was oogling about the festival and the environment. I can’t agree more with the philosophy of this festival which is sharing and having a unique experience of music surrounded by nature…I love that because music can be enjoyed in a variety of ways and when people feel comfortable in jeans and shorts and having a picnic, music in those circumstances can be magical…I can’t ask for more and I can’t wait. And I look forward very much to be there and share my values from Spain and my music, playing probably the most beautiful concerto ever written for a soloist in an orchestra…I invite every single person from Utah to come to Red Butte Garden and be part of this celebration of music, and this celebration of themselves.

Be sure to listen to our interview with Pablo Villegas here!

Check out details about Pablo’s performance with the Utah Symphony at the Red Butte Garden here and learn more about Pablo Villegas here.

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Between the Barlines – Michael Feinstein

During the 2016 Deer Valley Music Festival, the Utah Symphony has launched a weekly interview series entitled “Between the Barlines,” which seeks to reveal aspects of guest artists’ lives outside of the music for which they are known, including things such as their backgrounds, their influences, and their non-musical interests.

Nicknamed “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” Michael Feinstein is considered to be one of the leading interpreters of American Standards. In 1977, when Michael was introduced to Ira Gershwin, brother and lyricist of George Gershwin, Michael began studying for Ira for six years, researching and cataloging Gershwin materials. As Ira’s assistant, Michael earned access to numerous unpublished Gershwin songs and has performed and recorded many throughout his career. Michael is known for his work in preserving the legacy of America’s popular songbooks.

In this interview, Michael discusses the humble beginnings of his musical legacy, from working in multiple piano bars to his most memorable performances, to his first, influential meeting with Ira Gershwin. Michael also talks about his favorite composers, which spans Romantic composers like Rachmaninoff and Grieg as well as contemporary singers like Catherine Russell and Storm Large. A passionate musician, Michael discusses his enthusiasm for finding lost pieces of American music, pouring through everywhere from archives to dumpsters for rare musical manuscripts.

When talking about his upcoming celebration of Gershwin with the Utah Symphony, Michael says, “To perform with the Utah Symphony is a very blessed experience because it is one of the great orchestras of the world. There’s a deep and long Gershwin connection because Maurice Abravanel knew the Gershwin brothers. I met Maestro Abravanel many years ago in New York and it was a thrill to meet him because he was so close to my mentor, Ira Gershwin…the show is one that’s interactive and it’s certainly a lot of fun. With this kind of orchestra I can perform the ballads with a lush string section and the swing songs with the brass, so it’ll really run the gambit of style and energy for that evening. I think it’ll be a real fun night.”

Be sure to listen to our interview with Michael Feinstein here.

Check out details about Michael’s performance at the Utah Symphony’s Deer Valley Music Festival here and learn more about Michael Feinstein here.

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Between the Barlines – Justin Freer

During the 2016 Deer Valley Music Festival, the Utah Symphony has launched a weekly interview series entitled “Between the Barlines,” which seeks to reveal aspects of guest artists’ lives outside of the music for which they are known, including things such as their backgrounds, their influences, and their non-musical interests.

Born and raised in Huntington Beach, California, Justin Freer has quickly established himself as one of the West Coast’s most exciting musical voices and highly sought-after conductor and producer of film music. Writing some of 20th Century Fox Studios’ biggest campaigns including films such as Avatar, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Aliens in the Attic, Justin also serves as Founder and President of CineConcerts, which seeks to preserve film and TV concert music, including scores of films such as Gladiator, The Godfather, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Justin is a co-creator of the DreamWorks Animation concert with the Utah Symphony, which will feature award-winning conductor Shih-Hung Young with the Utah Symphony at the Deer Valley Music Festival on Friday July 29th.

In this interview, Justin talks about his upbringing on the West Coast and how it’s influenced his musical work as an award-winning composer and conductor. A thrill-seeker, Justin discusses his hobbies outside of music and composing, which includes the exhilarating activity of skydiving. Justin also comments on notable performances he’s had, including one for the 2012 Major League Soccer Championship in Los Angeles, and of the upcoming performance of music from DreamWorks animation.

When talking about the upcoming show of DreamWorks Animation music, Justin says, “It’s a high octane treat to be able to bring this concert to this venue with the Utah Symphony. It’s going to be a lot of fun and I think this particular set of music and this set of animated pieces are admired by a lot of different people around the world…You can’t really experience the power of film music, in your home theatre or in a movie theatre, the way you can by hearing a live 85 piece orchestra bringing alive the musical textures. It’s very unique and very special and it really is one of those things where you have to go see it to believe it. ”

Be sure to listen to our interview with Justin Freer here.

Check out details about Justin’s performance at the Utah Symphony’s Deer Valley Music Festival here and learn more about Justin Freer here.

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