Every spring the Utah Symphony invites 20,000 fifth graders to Abravanel Hall for a very special concert, an annual ritual that is more than fifty years old. The students dress up for the occasion, they whoop when the lights go down, they cheer when the conductor enters, and applaud enthusiastically when they are moved by the music.
The Utah Symphony has a long history of reaching out to students in their home communities and schools. Several times a year we pack up the buses and travel all over the state to schools in faraway places and small towns that don’t have easy access to a symphony orchestra. In the early 1970s, Maestro Maurice Abravanel lobbied the Utah state legislature to fund concerts for students all throughout the state, and to this day the orchestra takes the mandate of being the symphony for the entire state of Utah very seriously. Currently we perform 43 in-school concerts per year, reaching about 35,000 students.
School concerts can be wonderful experiences, but often they take place in auditoriums where shortly after the performance ends the students will be eating lunch, or playing dodgeball in gym class, or later attending a pep rally. The 5th Grade concerts are different: the students have the experience of coming to downtown Salt Lake City and attending a full symphonic performance in a legendary concert hall.
They get the chance to experience the beauty and grandeur of Abravanel Hall, from the giant staircase with gold leaf on the walls, to the Chihuly glass sculpture in the lobby, to the crystal chandeliers inside the hall. As they enter the hall, they hear the orchestra warming up. Projected behind the orchestra are photos of individual musicians with descriptions of how they picked their instrument, or where they grew up, or their favorite hobby.
In advance of the concert, teachers are sent materials about the concert, and the students receive a classroom visit from volunteer docents. The programs are often tied to the fifth grade curriculum, making connections between music and other subjects such as arts, language, math, or social studies. Sometimes this preparation is interactive, with students creating artwork based on the repertoire.
Because the performances are held in the hall, there is more opportunity to program larger scale works, and a chance to use other media. For instance this year the symphony used the student artwork from local grade schools to help tell the story of Till Eulenspiegel. During the performance the drawings were projected behind the orchestra, illustrating the story while the orchestra performed.
Utah Symphony violinist Becky Johnson is in the unique position of having been both a volunteer docent and a past student attendee of a 5th Grade concert with Abravanel conducting. She recalls the thrill and excitement of taking the city bus to the Tabernacle (the home of the Utah Symphony before Abravanel Hall was built) and seeing him conduct in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000. She has also taught students who were inspired to learn to play the violin because they attended a 5th Grade concert at Abravanel Hall.
I’m often reminded how much impact these concerts have when I am in the grocery store and someone recognizes me. “Oh! I’ve seen you at the symphony! I remember going to the symphony to see Maurice Abravanel conduct the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall when I was in grade school!” The excitement of seeing the full orchestra perform in the hall stays with people into adulthood, and the spontaneous response from a total stranger wanting to share with me their experience shows me that the performance had a lasting impact.