Former Symphony Director Maurice Abravanel Dies at 90

Deseret News, 22 September 1993, page B1

Maurice Abravanel died Wednesday at Holy Cross Hospital at age 90.

Abravanel was admitted to the hospital earlier this week with undisclosed ailments.  He had been in variable health for the past two years.  Born Jan. 6, 1903, in Salonika (then a part of Turkey) to Spanish-Portuguese parents, Abravanel moved with his family at age 5 to Switzerland, growing up in Lausanne.

His family originally intended him to become a doctor, but his musical talent was evident and at age 19 he was sent to Berlin, where he met and studied with the composer Kurt Weill.  In 1923 he was hired as a coach in a theater in Neustrelitz and made his debut as a conductor the following year at age 21.

Over the next decade Abravanel conducted in Zwickau, Altenburg, Kassel and at the Berlin State Opera.  It was in Altenburg that he met his first wife, the singer Friedel Schacko, with whom he relocated to Paris in 1933 after the Nazis came to power.  (Seven years later the couple divorced.)

After serving as music director of Balanchine's Paris Ballet, then conducting for two years in Australia, Abravanel came to this country in 1936 to accept a post at New York's Metropolitan Opera, at age 33 the youngest conductor the Met had ever hired.  (In 1943 he became an American citizen.)

In 1938 he turned his attention to Broadway musicals, beginning with Weill's “Knickerbocker Holiday.”  Other Weill shows he conducted included “One Touch of Venus” and “Street Scene” and in 1950 he won a Tony for his direction of Marc Blitzstein's “Regina.”

In 1947 Abravanel was engaged by the Utah Symphony to succeed Werner Janssen, who had resigned as music director after one season, the orchestra's first as an all-professional body.  Among the applicants for the job were Georges Sebastian, Antonia Brico, Nikolai Malko and Walter Hendl.  That same year Abravanel married the former Lucy Menasse Carasso, bringing her with him to Utah.  They would remain together until her death in 1985.
Despite financial setbacks, he succeeded over the next three decades in raising the Utah Symphony to international prominence.

Ten of the orchestra's concerts were broadcast live his first season.  In addition, Abravanel and the Utah Symphony were featured that same year on NBC's “Orchestras of the Nation” radio series.  In 1952 the orchestra made its first commercial recording, of Handel's “Judas Maccabaeus,” to be followed by more than 100 others for a variety of labels.

As a result, in 1966 the orchestra made the first of four international tours under Abravanel's direction, beginning with concerts in New York's Carnegie Hall and Athens' Herod Atticus Amphitheater at the base of the Acropolis.
At the same time Abravanel did not neglect local interests.  That first season, in addition to the music of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Ravel, he scheduled pieces by Utah composers Leroy J. Robertson and Crawford Gates, both included on that early NBC broadcast. Indeed, his list of Utah Symphony recordings includes three of Robertson's “Oratorio From the Book of Mormon,” one of them his very last.

Abravanel also extended the orchestra's season, based in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, to concerts in Ogden and Logan and for many years personally presided over the orchestra's many school concerts as well as a regional touring program that took it not only throughout the state but to outlying parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and Montana.

Indeed, prior to undergoing open-heart surgery in 1976, Abravanel had never missed a rehearsal or a concert, according to symphony officials.  He returned later that season to direct an all-Mahler program, followed by a strenuous four-week European tour and another two seasons of subscription programs before announcing his retirement in 1979 for reasons of health.

At that time symphony officials estimated that he had conducted more than 3,100 concerts and traveled some 250,000 miles in 32 years - the longest tenure of any orchestra conductor in America save Eugene Ormandy's in Philadelphia and Frederick Stock's in Chicago.

That same year Abravanel also resigned as director of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., which he had led since 1955, remaining only in an advisory capacity.  In 1982, however, he was named acting artistic director of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and has returned every year since as artist-in-residence.

From 1970 to 1976 he also served, by presidential appointment, as a member of the National Council on the Arts.  He was also vice chairman of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which awarded him its Gold Baton in 1981.
In July 1991 he was presented with the National Medal of Arts, bestowed on him in a White House ceremony by President Bush.

In January of this year, Symphony Hall was renamed in Abravanel's honor, coinciding with his 90th birthday celebrations.

His survivors include his third wife, Carolyn, whom he married at Tanglewood in 1986.