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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing