Maurice Abravanel was born in Greece of Portuguese Jewish parents, who moved to Switzerland when he was six. A close neighbour of Ernest Ansermet, he met at Ansermet’s home many distinguished musical figures, including Stravinsky, Honegger and Poulenc. He went on to study medicine at Lausanne University where he organised an orchestra of students. Having abandoned his medical studies for music, on the advice of Busoni Abravanel went to study with Kurt Weill in Berlin in 1922. In 1924 he conducted for the first time, and thenceforth he appeared in a succession of provincial German cities, including Altenberg and Kassel, as well as at the Berlin State Opera. He moved to Paris in 1933 where he became music director of George Balanchine’s ballet company, which performed in London and Paris. In 1934 he toured Australia as a conductor of the British National Opera Company, and returned there for the 1935–1936 season. Encouraged by Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler he travelled to America and made a sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where in 1936 he conducted, in nine days, seven performances of five operas. He conducted operas from the French, German and Italian repertoires while at the Met, which he left in 1938.
Abravanel then moved effortlessly into conducting on Broadway. His assignments here included Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), Lady in the Dark (1941), One Touch of Venus (1943), The Firebrand of Florence (1945) and Street Scene (1947). He also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and maintained his operatic connections, conducting at the Chicago Opera in the 1940–1941 season. He returned to Australia in 1946 to conduct an ad hoc orchestra in Sydney sponsored by a local newspaper. In 1949 he won a Tony Award for his conducting of Marc Blitzstein’s musical Reginaon Broadway.
A new phase of Abravanel’s career began when he was appointed music director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra in 1947. To start with he had to work hard. As he later recalled, ‘When I got there, I could hardly get the musicians through the first movement of the “Eroica”.’ Through hard work and determination Abravanel gradually built the orchestra up into one of the best in the United States, with most of the musicians coming from Utah. Initially the orchestra played in the Mormon Tabernacle, but from 1993 it has performed in the Abravanel Hall, a 2,812-seat concert hall for which the conductor had vigorously campaigned. In addition he created educational, outreach and touring programmes with the orchestra that set benchmarks for their time. Between 1954 and 1980 he was music director of the Music Academy of the West at Santa Barbara in California, and from 1981 he led conducting classes at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A hugely respected post-war figure in American musical life, he was awarded the Golden Baton of the American Symphony Orchestra League in 1981. Maurice Abravanel died in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1993.
In partnership with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, Abravanel made over one hundred recordings, predominantly for the Vanguard label. The repertoire of these recordings was highly innovative. In addition to being the first American conductor to record a complete cycle of the symphonies of Mahler, he also recorded works by Varèse, Bloch, Honegger, Milhaud and Satie. The traditional repertoire was not ignored, with cycles of the Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius symphonies. American music was also well represented, with recordings of works by Ned Rorem, William Schuman and Morton Gould. Abravanel’s interpretative style was completely straightforward and true to the printed text. He was able to generate considerable excitement without indulging in subjective modifications of the music that he was conducting. His cycle of the Mahler symphonies is of great interest and is witness to the close relationship that Abravanel enjoyed with Bruno Walter during his period in Paris before World War II. Equally enjoyable, if stylistically different, are Abravanel’s recordings of the music of Kurt Weill, who said of him ‘He is the only man alive who really understands my music.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).