The distinguished Greek-born Swiss-American Jewish conductor Maurice Abravanel [AKA: Maurice de Abravanel], was born in Thessaloniki, Greece when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. He came from an illustrious Sephardic Jewish family, which was expelled from Spain in 1492. Abravanel's ancestors settled in Saloniki in 1517, and his parents were both born there. In 1909, the Abravanel family moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where the father, Edouard de Abravanel, was a successful pharmacist. For several years, the Abravanels lived in the same house as Ernest Ansermet, the conductor of L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The young Abravanel played four-hand piano arrangements with Ansermet, began to compose, and met composers such as Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky. He was passionate about music and knew he wanted a career as a musician. He became the pianist for the municipal theatre and music critic for the city's daily newspaper. Maurice's father, however, insisted on a career in medicine and sent him to the University of Zürich, where he was miserable, having to dissect corpses. He wrote to his father that he would rather be second percussionist in an orchestra than a doctor, and his father finally relented.
In 1922, during the depths of the depression of the Weimar Republic, Maurice Abravanel, then age 19, moved to Berlin. Despite the difficult economic situation, Berlin supported three opera houses, which staged performances every night of the year. Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss and Otto Klemperer were all conducting opera in Berlin at that time. Abravanel became a student of the composer Kurt Weill (3 years his senior), who had to accept up to 46 students to make ends meet. After a year of study (Maurice later commented that Weill was "a lousy teacher", but became his close friend and enthusiastic supporter), Maurice landed a job as an accompanist at the opera in Neustrelitz, just north of Berlin. At the time, this was a good career path towards becoming a conductor because the accompanist had rehearsed and coached the singers and would sometimes be called on to substitute when the conductor was unable to conduct at short notice. In 1924, the theatre in Neustrelitz burned down, and the four conductors found work elsewhere. The members of the orchestra asked Abravanel if he would conduct performances at the castle. He conducted orchestra concerts twice a week at the castle with no rehearsal. He even received some pay.
In 1925, Maurice Abravanel received a position as choral director in Zwickau, in Saxony. He spent two years there, conducting the operetta repertoire. Because of his success in Zwickau, he was given a position as regular conductor at a better theatre in Altenburg. In Altenburg, he auditioned a young singer whose name was Friedel Schako, the daughter of the noted soprano Hedwig Schako. She was to become his first wife (Abravanel married three times during the course of his life). She later converted to Catholicism and changed her name to Marie.
After two years in Altenburg, Maurice Abravanel was appointed conductor at his first major opera house in Kassel. In 1931, the director of the Berlin State Opera saw him conduct a performance of Verdi's La forza del destino. He asked him to come to Berlin and conduct a performance at the Berlin State Opera. The orchestra was impressed and applauded Abravanel. This was important because at that time the orchestra decided whether a guest conductor would be asked to return. Abravanel became a regular guest conductor.
Because of the rise of Adolf Hitler, prominent Jewish musicians were being forced to leave Germany. Feeling this danger, Maurice Abravanel chose to relocate to Paris along with Kurt Weill in 1933. In Paris, he worked with Bruno Walter. Bruno Walter was a friend of and authority on the music of Gustav Mahler. Bruno Walter recommended Abravanel as a guest conductor at the Paris Opera, and he was able to cast, rehearse, and conduct Mozart's Don Giovanni there. He also had the opportunity to conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, the regular conductor of which was Pierre Monteux. He also met George Balanchine in Paris and conducted his ballets, as well as conducting the works of his old teacher and friend, Kurt Weill. Weill and Balanchine collaborated on a ballet, The Seven Deadly Sins, which had its premiere in Paris. Abravanel was the conductor.
Weill left Paris for London, and then New York (1935), and the Abravanels left Paris for Australia (1934). Maurice had been offered a chance to direct both the Melbourne and the Sydney opera. After a six-week journey through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean, he arrived to be acclaimed as the "eminent continental conductor." He conducted a 13-week season in Melbourne and a two-month season in Sydney with Verdi's Aida as the opener in both cities and a balanced selection of the standard repertoire, including Puccini, Wagner and Georges Bizet.
In mid-spring of 1936, Maurice Abravanel received an offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to come and conduct the German and French repertoire. He was offered a three-year contract, only two years of which were fulfilled (due to internal politics at the Met). By accepting this offer, Abravanel became the youngest contracted conductor in the history of the Met. After leaving the Met conducting position, he filled several temporary conducting stints on and around Broadway, and tried to emphasize Weill's music wherever possible.
In 1946 the community orchestra known as the Utah State Symphony Orchestra began advertising for a conductor, and Maurice Abravanel applied, stating that he wanted to build a permanent orchestra of his own. He was selected from a field of 40 applicants for the position, receiving a one-year contract. In accepting the Utah offer he had to reject a lucrative contract from Radio City Music Hall, and he ended up working without pay several times during the orchestra's darkest days. The one-year contract eventually turned into a career that ended with his retirement in 1979. During that time Abravanel built the Utah Symphony Orchestra from a part-time community orchestra into a well-respected, professional ensemble with recording contracts with Vanguard, Vox, Angel, and CBS. He lobbied for years for a permanent home for the orchestra, which then performed in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square. He saw his dream come true when Salt Lake's Symphony Hall opened in September 1979, just after he had retired. In May 1993, a few months before his death, Symphony Hall was renamed Abravanel Hall in his honor.
In addition to becoming known as a definitive interpreter of classical composers, Maurice Abravanel championed contemporary music, recording the music of Crawford Gates and Leroy Robertson among others. He is remembered for making the first-ever complete recording of the nine G. Mahler symphonies, as well as classic recordings of the Berlioz Requiem and works by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Maurice Abravanel also directed the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, where young musicians gathered for summer music camps. He taught conducting at Tanglewood, where he was appointed artist-in-residence for life.
Abravanel was known as Maurice de Abravanel until 1938. He moved to the USA in 1936 and remained there until his death. He married widow Lucy Carasso, who already had two children Pierre and Roger, and they remained married until her death, some 50 years later. He married his third wife, Carolyn, just a few years before his death in 1993 in Salt Lake City, Utah, at age 90.
His honors include: Received Tony Award for conducting the music of Marc Blitzstein's opera, Regina on Broadway (1950); Member of the first music panel of the US National Endowment for the Arts (1970); Served on the National Council of the Arts (1970-1976); Received "Golden Baton" award from the American Symphony Orchestra League (1981); Appointed "Artist in Residence for Life" from the Tanglewood Music Festival (1981); Received the National Medal of Arts from USA President George H.W. Bush (1991); Received Grammy Award nominations for several of his over 100 classical recordings with the Utah Symphony Orchestra.