Obituary: Maurice Abravanel

Maurice Abravanel, conductor: born Thessaloniki, Greece 6 January 1903; Music Director, Utah Symphony Orchestra 1947-79; married Friedel Schacko (marriage dissolved), 1947 Lucy Menasse Carasso (died 1985), 1987 Carolyn Firmage; died 22 September 1993.

MAURICE ABRAVANEL will long be remembered for putting the state of Utah on the musical map through his enlightened directorship of their Symphony Orchestra at Salt Lake City from 1947 to 1979.

There were many different cultural strands in Abravanel's background. He was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1903, into a family of Iberian Sephardic origin and they moved to Switzerland when Maurice was six. Although he was a good pianist, he was training in medicine at the University of Lausanne until he met Ferruccio Busoni, who suggested he should study with Kurt Weill in Berlin. Abravanel went there in 1922 during the period of chronic inflation and paid for his harmony and counterpoint lessons by bartering butter.

Abravanel's contact with Weill became enormously productive: he conducted the premieres of many of Weill's theatre works on both sides of the Atlantic - including Street Scene (1950), which has been given so successfully by English National Opera at the Coliseum for three seasons. For a decade Abravanel learnt his trade in German opera houses and theatres. But in 1933, with the threat of Hitler's Jewish persecutions, he and his first wife, Friedel Schacko, moved to Paris, where he worked with Balanchine. Later he toured Australia with the British National Opera Company, which may have given him an insight into Vaughan Williams, whose orchestral works he recorded.

It was in 1936 that Abravanel, suggested by Furtwangler and Walter, became the youngest conductor to appear at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, making his debut with Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila. But after two years, as a result of mixed reviews and jealousies, Abravanel moved to Broadway, where he directed Weill's shows and won a Tony award for Marc Blitzstein's Regina. In 1943 he became a US citizen and four years later had the chance to go back to the orchestral world when Walter recommended him to the Utah Symphony Orchestra. When Abravanel was asked why he had wanted to go as far away as Salt Lake City he said: 'All my life, whenever I was successful - let's say in Paris, at the Berlin State Opera - I always thought, 'Oh well, they are a first-rate ensemble. They play first-rate anyhow. But it is they and somebody else who built that orchestra, it's not me.' '

This time Abravanel built the orchestra himself and gave first performances in Utah of standard works like Beethoven symphonies. Like Simon Rattle at Birmingham, Abravanel proved the advantages of sticking to his own orchestra and making it transcend its local context. Alongside its developing international career, the Utah Symphony brought out some of the earliest recordings of Mahler symphonies: Abravanel recalled his Swiss upbringing by performing Honegger; and he pioneered composers such as Satie and Varese when there were no other recordings available. Some of this valuable legacy is now on CD.

From 1954 to 1980 Abravanel was also active on the West Coast during the summer, as director of the Music Academy of the West at Santa Barbara. During the 1940s, after his recovery from heart surgery, Abravanel was a much-loved regular visitor as artist in residence at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Abravanel had married his second wife, Lucy Menasse Carasso, in 1947 and she died in 1985. In 1987 he married Carolyn Firmage, a friend from Salt Lake City, and they thought the ceremony was a secret. They were caught by surprise when the singer Elly Ameling dedicated her opening Schubert recital at Tanglewood to them both. In public Abravanel was inclined to become anxious if he was apart from his wife. 'At my age,' he would say, 'where will I find another one?'

Abravanel, dying at 90, is another link between conducting and longevity. In his later years he gained special recognition. The American Symphony Orchestra League gave him its Gold Baton in 1981; President Bush presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 1991; and last January Salt Lake City renamed its Symphony Hall in his honour for his 90th birthday.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star