Maurice Abravanel (born Maurice de Abravanel) was born into a prominent Sephardic Jewish family centered in the Ottoman Empire city of Salonika in Greek Macedonia (now Thessaloniki, Greece) on January 6, 1903. When he was six years old, his family emigrated to Lausanne, Switzerland, where for several years the Abravanels shared the same house with Ernest Ansermet, even then the conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Ansermet, whose keen interest in the music of his time brought him into contact with many of Europe's most prominent composers, was a strong influence on the young Abravanel, with whom he often played four-hand piano arrangements with Ansermet.
The young Abravenel showed an early and enormous talent for music, and worked in his late teens as pianist for Lausanne's municipal theatre and a newspaper music critic. His father had different plans for him, and demanded he study medicine at the University of Zürich. Abravanel hated his studies, writing after nearly a year of school to his father that he would rather be second percussionist in an orchestra than a doctor. His father relented, and Abravanel moved to Berlin in 1922.
It was there that Abravanel immersed himself in Berlin's wide-ranging music scene, studying briefly with a man who would become a lifelong friend, Kurt Weill. He worked as a repetiteur and conductor in Neustrelitz, Zwickau, Altenburg, Kassel, and, in 1931, made a successful debut with the Berlin Staatsoper, where he made a strong impression on the orchestra, which at the time had a strong role in deciding who would conduct. He made regular appearances at the Staatsoper until 1933, when he decided, along with Weill, to relocate to Paris as the Nazis rose to power and imposed an official policy of anti-Semitism.
It was in Paris that Abravanel married singer Friedel Schako and worked closely with Mahler's most well-known disciple, Bruno Walter, and served as music director of Balanchine's Paris Ballet. In 1934 the Abravanels traveled to Australia, where he conducted 13-week opera season in Melbourne and a two-month season in Sydney, focusing on standard repertoire by Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, and Wagner.
In early 1936, Abravanel received an offer from New York's Metropolitan Opera. who were seeking a conductor who could focus on German and French repertoire. Abravanel accepted, becoming the youngest contracted conductor in the opera company's history. He fulfilled two years of a three-year contract and, for the next several years, conducted on and around New York's Broadway theater scene, winning critical acclaim and press attention for his championing of the music of Weill.
In 1946 the Utah State Symphony Orchestra – then a community orchestra – began advertising for a conductor, and Abravanel applied, stating that he wanted to build a permanent orchestra of his own. Out of a field of more than three dozen applicants, Abravanel was chosen and given a one-year contract. Abravanel took a liking to Utah's mountainous country and the local community, and accepted the contract, surprising New York's music establishment when he turned down a lucrative contract from Radio City Music Hall offered at around the same time.
Abravanel would remain with the Utah Symphony for thirty-two seasons.
During that time, Abravanel built the Utah Symphony from a part-time community ensemble to a symphony orchestra with an international reputation achieved through over one hundred recordings for Vanguard, Vox, EMI, and CBS. He led the orchestra on four international tours and numerous tours of the United States. He championed local Utah artists and the musicians in the orchestra, helping them achieve full-time professional status.During his tenure as Utah Symphony miusic duirector, Abravanel had an active career elsewhere in the United Sattes. He directed the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, from 1956 to 1979. In 1981 he began teaching conducting at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he has been appointed artist-in-residence for life. From 1970 to 1976 Abravanel served on the National Council of the Arts, and also served as vice-chairman of the American Symphony Orchestra League, receiving its Golden Baton Award in 1981, two years after his retirement. In July, 1991, Abravanel received the President's Medal of Honor for outstanding service to the cultural life of the United States.
For years Abravanel had lobbied for a permanent venue for the Utah Symphony. Salt Lake City's Symphony Hall, renamed Abravanel Hall in his honor in 1993, was inaugurated the season after he had retired.
Throughout his career he received many prestigious awards, including several honorary doctorates, a Tony award for Marc Blitzstein's Regina, and Grammy nominations for his recordings of Honegger's King David, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and Bloch's Sacred Service.
His pioneering cycle of the complete Mahler symphonies recorded for Vanguard was made before Mahler was widely appreciated and made a large contribution to the rise in Mahler's popularity.
Maurice Abravanel died in Salt Lake City on September 22, 1993.
— Gene Gaudette