Salt Lake City: A Place to Play
Symphony musicians say Utah's one-two punch of arts and recreation is hard to beat.
Picture this: You’re on the slopes at Brighton on a Sunday morning, waiting for your snowboarding lesson to begin, when you realize that your instructor looks oddly familiar. A quick question confirms your suspicion — the friendly, bearded guy in snow gear is the same man you saw in a tuxedo the night before, playing percussion with the Utah Symphony in downtown Salt Lake City’s sparkling Abravanel Hall.
Talk about your “only in Salt Lake City” moments.
Percussionist Eric Hopkins is a New York-educated former Floridian who channeled his lifelong passion for skateboarding into a fun side job a couple of years after winning his Utah Symphony spot. He’s one of many orchestra members captivated by the state’s hard-to-match combination of world-class arts organizations and world-class outdoor recreation. (Watch: "Utah Symphony's Ode to Winter")
“Art and culture in Utah is really evolving, especially in Salt Lake City,” says principal flutist Mercedes Smith. “The breadth of cultural opportunities, in addition to the incredible scenery — it really elevates the quality of life here.” (Read: “Salt Lake City’s Must-See Street Art” and “Temple Square: The Geographical and Musical Heart of Salt Lake”)
"There's no city the size of Salt Lake City that has a major orchestra, a major ballet company and a great opera company."
– David Porter, Violinist for the Utah Symphony
Smith’s husband, Utah Symphony violinist David Porter, believes the state’s recreational amenities are well-known, thanks partly to their starring role in the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Read: “The Fly Girls of Park City.”) “But I don't think the average person realizes that we have an exceptional arts community,” Porter says. “There's no city the size of Salt Lake City that has a major orchestra, a major ballet company and a great opera company.”
Back in the days of Maurice Abravanel, who led the orchestra from 1947 to 1979, most of the Utah Symphony’s roster was home-grown. These days, “we’re from all over the country — from California, Pennsylvania, Texas — to all over the world, from France, Canada, South Korea and Russia,” says Canadian-born cellist Anne Lee.
"The breadth of cultural opportunities, in addition to the incredible scenery — it really elevates the quality of life here."
– Mercedes Smith, Principal Flutist for the Utah Symphony
Claude Halter, who leads the orchestra’s second violin section, says Salt Lake City offers the best of both worlds: small-town pace and big-town culture. “I just wouldn't be able to find that same experience anywhere else in the U.S. that I'm aware of,” says Halter, who grew up in Paris and has had orchestra jobs in Miami and in Vancouver, B.C. He came to Salt Lake City with Lee when she joined the Utah Symphony, followed a few months later by his own successful audition. The two have since married.
Halter had skied in Utah before and was “extremely psyched” at the prospect of more outdoor adventures in the state. (Read: “Movies Filmed in Utah: Plotting a Cinematic Drive-Through” and “Paddling the Escalante.”) But for Lee, Salt Lake City’s thriving recreation scene was a pleasant surprise. Now she loves sharing outdoor adventures with her colleagues in the orchestra. “It’s therapeutic for all of us to not just be stuck inside playing our instruments all the time,” she says.
“Just skiing, I don’t feel completely satisfied because it’s just all fun, but no bigger questions of ‘Why am I doing this?’” Hopkins says. “But with just performing, it’s not quite the same physicality of the skiing. I think together the physicality and the intellectual-ness of the orchestral performance is a therapy.”