Obituary: Maurice Abravanel
Thursday 21 October 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.
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