History of Utah Symphony
Founded in 1940, the Utah Symphony is one of America’s premiere symphony orchestras, known internationally for its distinctive performances and recording legacy. As part of Utah’s largest arts organization (Utah Symphony | Utah Opera), the orchestra’s 85 full-time professional musicians perform more than 150 performances throughout Utah and other Western states each season.
The Utah Symphony (then the Utah State Symphony Orchestra) gave its first concert in Salt Lake City on May 8, 1940, conducted by Hans Henriot. Henriot led the orchestra as Music Director until the end of World War II, followed by the brief tenure of Werner Janssen (1946–1947).
The Utah Symphony became recognized as a leading American ensemble largely through the efforts of Maurice Abravanel, Music Director from 1947 to 1979. During his tenure, the orchestra undertook four International tours and released more than 100 recordings.
Included in the orchestra’s discography with Abravanel are recordings of works by Honegger, Milhaud, Satie and Varèse. A pioneering cycle of Mahler Symphonies was recorded between 1963-1974 which included the first commercial recordings of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Honors for Abravanel’s Mahler recordings with the Utah Symphony include the “Mahler Medal of Honor” from the Bruckner Society of America (1965) and the International Gustav Mahler Society award for “Best Mahler Recording” (Fifth Symphony, 1975). Other distinguished recordings include cycles of Symphonies by Brahms and Sibelius, and the complete orchestral works of Tchaikovsky.
Touring played a significant role in Abravanel’s legacy with the orchestra. In the years between 1966 and 1977, they traveled to 16 countries throughout Europe, Great Britain and Central and South America, appearing at festivals in Athens, Berlin and Linz. In the U.S. they made their first of three Carnegie Hall appearances in 1966 and performed across the United states, the Virgin Islands and Washington D.C. For his work with the Utah Symphony, Abravanel received the “National Medal of Arts” from President Bush in 1991.
Abravanel’s tenure was followed by Varujan Kojian (1979-1983), Joseph Silverstein (1983-1998), and Keith Lockhart (1998-2009). The orchestra’s legacy of recording and touring continued with each of the three subsequent Music Directors. Varujan Kojian’s tenure brought recordings of works by Berlioz, Brahms and Liszt in addition to a number of film scores. Joseph Silverstein made over a dozen recordings during his 15 seasons as Music Director, often appearing as both soloist and conductor. Keith Lockhart recorded works for the 2002 Olympics, an orchestral CD (Symphonic Dances), and led the orchestra along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a nationally broadcast PBS special featuring Vaughan Williams’ Christmas Oratorio “Hodie”. European tours were undertaken with all three Music Directors: Kojian (1981), Silverstein (1986), and Lockhart (2005).
The orchestra has been nominated for Grammy awards for recordings with both Maurice Abravanel: Honegger, Le Roi David (1963), Bloch, Sacred Service (1979), Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms (1980) and with Michael Tilson-Thomas: Copland, Old American Songs (1988). The Utah Symphony has also recorded extensively for Angel (EMI), CBS Masterworks (Sony), London (Decca), Pro Arte, RCA Red Seal (BMG), Vanguard (Philips), Varèse Sarabande, Vox and Westminster (DG).
The Utah Symphony has performed in many of the world’s most prestigious concert halls including Carnegie Hall (New York), the Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.), the Musikverein (Vienna), the Konzerthaus (Vienna), the Philharmonie (Berlin), the Gewandhaus (Leipzig), Royal Festival Hall (London), the Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires), the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (Athens) and the Brucknerhaus (Linz). In 1986, the Utah Symphony had the distinction of performing in both West and East Berlin, giving concerts at the Philharmonie and the newly restored Schauspielhaus (Konzerthaus).
For over 3 decades, the Utah Symphony primarily performed at the Mormon Tabernacle in the heart of Salt Lake City. The orchestra moved to its current home at Abravanel Hall in the fall of 1979.
In 2009, Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer took over as Music Director of the Utah Symphony and has since brought a dynamic and energetic approach to the orchestra’s musical identity, programming a mix of contemporary, classical and romantic repertoire with a focus on works by Stravinsky, Berlioz, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Carl Nielsen.
The orchestra participates in Utah Opera's four annual productions at Salt Lake's Capitol Theatre. In addition, the Utah Symphony performs numerous concerts as part of the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera's Deer Valley® Music Festival, held each summer in the Park City mountain community. Funding from the Utah State Legislature makes it possible for the Symphony to perform for over 55,000 students each year, both in Abravanel Hall and schools throughout the state.
With its many subscription, education and outreach concerts and tours, the Utah Symphony is one of the most engaged orchestras in the nation.