Abravanel Hall's plaza is now an outdoor concert hall — for this summer at least

Rhythm Jackson tries out a piano his father decorated as artists unveil their public art installation of upcycled pianos at Abravanel Hall Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday.

Rhythm Jackson tries out a piano his father decorated as artists unveil their public art installation of upcycled pianos at Abravanel Hall Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News )


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SALT LAKE CITY — A few pedestrians were sucked into the Abravanel Hall plaza Friday afternoon as Misha Galant hammered away on a grand piano placed outside of the iconic downtown concert hall.

Galant is a professional pianist and performed as part of a mini-concert celebrating the launch of an ambitious art project called "Key Changes." However, a key component of the project is you don't have to be an expert to play outside the venue.

The Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation — along with Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County arts representatives — unveiled six uniquely upcycled pianos on Friday that will remain outside of Abravanel Hall through September. Anyone can come and play, but there will also be outdoor concerts held in the plaza on June 28, July 26, Aug. 23 and Sept. 26.

"I can't wait to see how our downtown visitors come and utilize these beautiful works of art throughout the summer," said Matt Castillo, director of the Salt Lake County Arts and Culture.

The idea started with the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation. Kary Billings, the nonprofit's executive director, said the organization was inspired by various other cities that have explored similar concepts to motivate people to care about music. It also aims to help promote the upcoming Gina Bachauer International Artists Piano Competition, slated to be held in Salt Lake City from June 16 through June 29.

The nonprofit submitted an application through a program overseen by the Blocks, an organization that promotes arts and entertainment in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, to help fund the project. Britney Helmers, the organization's program director, was instantly sold on the idea.

"We thought it was absolutely amazing," she said. "(It's) highlighting visual arts and performing arts in one program. What else could we ask for?"

Artists unveil their public art installation of upcycled pianos at Abravanel Hall Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Artists unveil their public art installation of upcycled pianos at Abravanel Hall Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

All six pianos were donated to the foundation, either from donors or other foundations. Once the Blocks — and other partner organizations — got involved, the foundation's leaders reached out to local artists to design them. Ryan Harrington, Chuck Landvatter, Evan Jed Memmott, Richard Taylor, Kalani Tonga Tufuaku and Ben Wiemeyer were eventually selected and given less than a month to design the pianos by Friday's unveiling.

The six artists used different influences in their designs.

Bachauer Piano posted short stories behind all six designs on social media before the unveiling event. For example, Tufuaku explained her artwork typically blends Pacific Island patterns mixed with a "nontraditional color palette." In this case, she also decided to merge the different national flowers of the pianists competing in the upcoming international competition into her design.

"This was one of the most exciting things I've worked on in several years," she said on Friday, moments before her children, Kalea and Kamila, peeled off a tarp to reveal her final product.

Kalea and Kamila Tukuafu uncover their mother's decorated piano during a public art installation of upcycled pianos at Abravanel Hall Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Kalea and Kamila Tukuafu uncover their mother's decorated piano during a public art installation of upcycled pianos at Abravanel Hall Plaza in Salt Lake City on Friday. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Billings said the artists were also warned the pianos would remain outside for an entire summer, so they all worked as best as they could to incorporate ways to protect the instruments from the weather and "whatever else that can happen downtown."

Of course, Abravanel Hall has gotten plenty of attention since Key Changes was organized. More than 40,000 people have signed an online petition since May 4 seeking to preserve the 45-year-old concert hall after it became evident that the venue could be impacted by a proposed entertainment district outside of the Delta Center.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she was "working diligently" to keep Abravanel Hall "in its present form" moving forward since then. The county, which oversees the building, published a report estimating renovations would cost about $200 million. Smith Entertainment Group executives said they will "support" the county's decision on the future of Abravanel Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts.

Key Changes may just provide even more interest in Abravanel Hall as negotiations over the district continue. Castillo said he is not aware if the venue has held a program like it before and it's unclear if this will be a one-time thing or a new tradition; however, he points out that it fits into the county's goal of utilizing the concert hall's plaza.

"We've always been looking for opportunities to activate the plaza more, so this is really just the perfect opportunity for that," he said, as someone played the "Super Mario Bros" theme behind him.

"This is really a perfect blend of music, creation, art and all those things — and a perfect opportunity to activate the plaza more."

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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