Who was the Abravanel from the iconic Abravanel Hall?

Posted at 7:27 PM, Jun 14, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — Located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, Abravanel Hall has long been an architectural icon of the city and home to an array of arts and culture... but who exactly was its namesake?

Internationally renowned maestro Maurice Abravanel lived and traveled all over the world conducting music, but he never stayed in one place as long as he did in Utah.

“He said 'I had conducted, you know, with famous orchestras all over this world,'” remembered Carolyn Abravanel, Maurice’s widow. “'And had rave reviews, but it was somebody else's orchestra.' And he said, 'I want to go and see if I can find and make up an orchestra that is mine.'

“His roots were here. He gave his all to the arts.”

Today, Abravanel's name, of course, graces Abravanel Hall, the cultural heart of Salt Lake City which faces an uncertain future as the city eyes renovations in the downtown district.

“He was a catalyst for arts in the community, and just how hard he worked to create and build the Utah Symphony,” said Lisa Chaufty, director of the McKay Music Library where a replica of Abravanel’s studio is housed. “And part of that was just through who he was as a person, as a musician, and his ability to connect to all of the people in the community.”


Born in 1903 in Greece to a family of Sephardic Jews, Abranvel’s talents came out of his upbringing against the backdrop of a Europe at war.

“First of all, he was cosmopolitan beyond belief,” explained Paul Wetzel, former music critic for the Salt Lake Tribune. And so they spoke Spanish in their household. And then when he was six years old, they moved to Switzerland, and so he went to school in Switzerland and became a French speaker.”


Abravanel became mesmerized by the piano at a young age after hearing his sister take lessons.

“So at age 12, Maurice was orchestrating and composing music,” Carolyn said. “At 16, he was conducting.”

But his father, a prominent pharmacist, was not a fan, insisting his son’s passion for music was far from an honorable profession.

“They knew of his strong interest in music, but they didn't agree with that,” said Carolyn. “So they decided that he had to be a pharmacist. And they came up and they decided to send him to medical school.”

It was when after Abravanel saw his first corpse that his career path made an immediate changed.

“He realized that he couldn't be a doctor with his sensitivity that he knew then he had to just leave and go straight to Berlin where everything was happening in the music world,” his widow shared.


It wasn't long before Abravanel quickly became a force in the Berlin music scene.

“...when Hitler came to power, [Abravanel], with other Jews, fled to Paris, and he conducted in Paris, and then eventually met famous French composers,” Wetzel said.

The composer's worldliness was reflected in his scores, which can now be found in the Maurice Abravanel Studio located at the University of Utah.

“Some of them were in German, some of them were in French, because he was a man of the world.” Chaufty explained.

At just 33 years old, Abravanel became the youngest conductor to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and lead the Sydney Symphony in Australia.

“Abravanel’s great talent was that he was able to look at a very complex, long symphony, like a Mahler symphony for example, and shape the entire work, so that it made sense to the listener, the way the music unfolded,” said Wetzel.


While conducting on Broadway, Maurice saw an article in The New York Times that Utah was looking for a conductor.

“So he went to his agent,” Carolyn said. “And he said, 'You're absolutely crazy, Maurice!' So he did the most logical thing. He fired his agent. So he came to Utah.”

In Utah, Abravanel’s work began to extend beyond conducting

“He worked very hard to nurture local musicians,” Chaufty said. “He had people come out to lead the sections of the orchestra who were from places like New York, the east coast or the west coast.”

Within a few years, half of the section leaders of the Utah Symphony were local musicians.

“He not only conducted the orchestra and programmed its music, but he came up with innovations of how to pay the musicians to make so that they could record and associating them with the University of Utah,” Wetzel noted.

“He was always trying to find more ways for his orchestra musicians to have work so that they could eventually get to the place that they had a full-time 52 week contract,” Paul said.


After 32 years of leading the Utah Symphony, Abravanel appeared at his final performance at the Tabernacle in 1979.

“It was a very special time,” Wetzel added. “And I wrote very carefully about that ... because I knew I was writing for history.”

Nearly three decades after his death, Abravanel’s contributions to the arts, for some, are at risk of being forgotten.

“He gave his life to this orchestra," Carolyn remembered, "and to think that someone wants to come in here and erase the history of this incredible human being,”