Something cool you might have missed: Maurice Abravanel being fucking awesome

Maurice Abravanel. Or possibly one of the bad guys from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There’s a broadcast of the Pittsburgh Symphony from a few years back in which the program was conducted by the orchestra’s concertmaster, Andres Cardenes. During the broadcast, there was an interview that I’ve probably referenced entirely too many times in which Cardenes described the pleasure of working with an ensemble of the PSO’s caliber because he did not “have to work out the kinks.” This, of course, is incredibly stupid and is perhaps the biggest reason why, for good or bad, many people find the work of contemporary conductors lacking relative to their musical forebearers. Working out the kinks is a great way for a conductor to develop a deeper understanding of a work: I don’t want to put words into old friend Ken Woods’ mouth, but I would hazard a guess that his well-received recordings of the Schumann symphonies with Orchestra of the Swan (along with the symphonies of Hans Gal…hey look, you can buy them on the internet!) likely owe a respectable debt to his time spent working on them with the Oregon East Symphony out in cowboy country. Many prominent conductors from “back in the day” worked their way up the orchestra food chain, starting as a repetitur in some distant province, working at this theater and that summer spa, travelling all over the place and gaining a reputation until they hit the big time with one of the premier orchestras on the continent. This was the trajectory for several famous conductors, not the least of which was Gustav Mahler. My personal favorite conductor, Otmar Suitner, took much the same path.

And yet there are a few who take a sharp turn on the course of their ascendancy and seek out a different opportunity: building their own premier orchestra. One of my other favorite conductors, Kiril Kondrashin, took this approach. After being appointed to the conducting staff of the famed Bolshoi Theater and working there for 13 years, he decided that he wanted to get out of the pit and onto the podium. After gaining some notoriety as the condcutor for Van Cliburn’s famous 1958 Tschaikovsky Competition victory and the subsequent recording on RCA, Kondrashin ended up as the music director of the Moscow Philharmonic. That orchestra had been established in 1951 as something of a youth orchestra, but by the time Kondrashin had fnished his tenure there in 1975, they were a world-class ensemble who had premiered Shostakovich 4 and 13 and released some killer recordings, including the rest of the Shostakovich symphonies and an almost-complete Mahler cycle that is absolutely first-rate. Kondrashin would wind up defecting from the Soviet Union and seeking political asylum in the Netherlands, where he guest conducted the Concertgebouworkest and worked with some of the best orchestras in Europe in other guest conducting roles.

Now then, after almost 500 words, we come to the point. Rapid fire biography: Maurice Abravanel’s path was strikingly similar to that of Kondrashin. Abravanel was drawn to music at an early age, and there’s a good reason why. When he was six, his family moved to Switzerland and for a number of years lived in the same house as Ernest God Damn Ansermet, with Abravanel playing piano with the maestro and getting to meet some of his buddies like, oh I don’t know, Igor Fucking Stravinsky. No shit he was drawn to music. He studied with Kurt Weill and ended up fleeing with him to Paris after the rise of the Nazis, but not before becoming a regular guest conductor at the Berlin State Opera. In Paris Abravanel worked with Bruno Walter and conducted the premiere of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. He then took a job in Australia conducting both the Melbourne and Sydney Operas. Two years later, in 1936, he became the youngest contracted conductor in the history of the Metropolitan Opera. He left the Met after two years due to the usual internal bullshit that happens at every job everywhere and conducted on Broadway for several years, even winning a Tony Award in 1949 for Marc Blitzstein’s Regina.

So what’s a celebrated opera and musical conductor to do? Why, head out west to build an orchestra from almost nothing in a town that was settled by a roving band of merry polygamists 100 years earlier! This is where I insert the clip of Rick James saying “cocaine is a hell of a drug.”  From 1947 until his retirement in 1979, Abravanel took a group that, in his own words, “could hardly get through the first movement of the ‘Eroica'” and turned them into one of the best orchestras in the United States and the first ever ensemble to record a complete Mahler cycle, as well as cycles of Brahms, Tschaikovsky, and Sibelius.

But that Mahler cycle is really something – think about the will it took for everyone involved to make that happen. It’s a tribute to the musicians, engineers, conductor, and everyone else that something as monumental as a complete Mahler cycle that began in the early 1960’s and ended more than 10 years later even exists. But here’s the best part: it’s really fucking good. I’m not even all the way through it yet and I’m already completely blown away. So far I’ve taken in the first seven symphonies as well as the Adagio from the Symphony no. 10 and they have all been varying degrees of awesome. Concurrently, I’ve been exploring the aforementioned Sibelius cycle, and it too is simply terrific (the first four symphonies anyway, which is what I’ve gotten to thus far). Abravanel approaches music-making in much the same way that Suitner and Kondrashin do: directly, without a lot of excess bullshit, remaining generally faithful to the score, and coaxing dynamic performances out of a regimental focus on the nuts and bolts. His tempi in Mahler are driven, completely devoid of anything resembling the self-indulgence of some of his contemporaries, let alone today’s maestros. But the architecture is there; I don’t know that anyone has ever made the 3rd symphony sound more convincing from a structural standpoint, and the 4th is quite possibly the best recording of the symphony that I’ve ever heard, perfectly paced and with the best soprano (non-Sylvia McNair division!) out there in Netania Davrath.

But what makes the performances so compelling to me is the sense of struggle. When I was in grad school, I heard the Utah Symphony under Keith Lockhart perform Mahler 6, and it was as polished and well-executed as one would expect from a top 15 American orchestra. But that wasn’t them in the ’60’s and ’70’s. The playing is generally quite good, but there are plenty of missed notes and harsh sounds generated by an orchestra that was clearly pushed to their absolute limits. But that’s what Mahler SHOULD be, in my opinion. The writing is incredibly complex and the technical difficulties for each and every instrument are well-documented. It would obviously be silly to suggest that the world’s elite orchestras sound TOO good, and it’s certainly not their fault that they’ve become musical forces of unsurpassed technical proficiency, but it’s refreshing to hear really trying their damnedest in every way because that’s the only way they can pull it off.

The Sibelius cycle is quite a bit more refined, having been recorded near the end of Abravanel’s tenure in Utah (May 1977 to be exact), but it’s a showcase of their long relationship and the musical style they developed together. Abravanel gets some unbelievable balances and colors, especially in the woodwinds, better than any conductor I’ve ever heard in this music (and in the Mahler, frankly). It’s really remarkable shit. There’s a harshness to Abravanel’s sound conception that I just want to believe a man who spent 35 years pitilessly drinking himself ragged would have been stoked about. I really can’t stress how amazing the textures, shapes, colors, and most of all balances are. I heard things I didn’t even know were there, and I know the Sibelius symphonies pretty damn well.

I’ve lamented many times in the past that the days of conductors and orchestras building long-standing relationships are essentially over, at least when it comes to the bigger and more famous orchestras of the world; 12-week contracts with three different groups and guest conducting every band everywhere wreak havoc on the very idea. This is not to suggest that it’s impossible for there to be successful musical collaborations over the course of many years (my love for the Honeck/Pittsburgh Symphony combo is well-documented). But it’s hard to imagine a world, what with the desperate need to make money in every way possible, in which an orchestra would ever agree to something like that, let alone a conductor who would want to. And that’s too bad, because when you hear something like these performances and understand the insane amount of effort that everyone put into developing chemistry with one another, it really does have an effect, however intangible, on the impact that the music has on you.

The music library at the University of Utah, where I went to grad school, has the Maurice Abravanel Room, a re-creation of his study with all of his scores and books in it, which I visited on a couple of occasions. And yet, when I was studying there, I didn’t really know any of his music-making legacy and his contributions to the orchestra, the city, the university, the whole deal. It’s impressive, really, and it speaks to the other great loss with the lack of these long-term relationships, and that is this: it may not be New York or Paris or Berlin or Vienna, but Maurice Abravanel is a fucking legend in Salt Lake City in a way that a very small group of conductors know. Every conductor who sets foot in the hall that bears his name works under a long musical shadow that will never go away. It’s a legacy that I never fully realized while I was there, but when you hear these recordings, it adds a deep sense of perspective to what it means to make music with other human beings and the sense of community that not only can but must develop. Maurice Abravanel created that in Salt Lake City, and as their international reputation continues to ascend, his follows suit.

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4 thoughts on “Something cool you might have missed: Maurice Abravanel being fucking awesome

  1. Erik

    Thanks for the mention. I completely endorse what you say about the importance and value of learning the ropes in AA and AAA ball. As you and I have discussed, you can always tell a conductor who started at the top, because there’s usually something seriously missing.

    There are probably two aspects to this- first, you don’t learn the nitty gritty, nuts and bolts of the orchestra in front of the Berlin Phil (at least Karajan didn’t). It was a bit of a shock going to a dodgy community orchestra from a great conservatory, but when you hear strange sounds coming from the clarinets, it forces you to ask yourself- what where those cats at school doing right that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. On one level, Mr Pittsburgh seems to say that you don’t need this skill set if you’re just working with good orchestras, but I disagree. All orchestras have the same problems- it’s just a question of the size and fixability of those problems. If you can’t fix them, or worse yet, don’t hear them, you might be able to stand in front of a band making a great sound, but what are you contributing?

    I call all of that stuff “tuning the piano.” Making the orchestra sound as good, in tune, balanced and together as possible is a big part of your job.

    However, I think I possibly learned more about the other aspect of conducting out West- what I call “painting the picture” or “telling the story.” Yes, a big part of it is living with pieces like the Schumann symphonies, trying your ideas, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But I’ve come to believe a bigger part of it is that ability to tell the story no matter what shape the piano is in. Of course, Horowitz probably sounded best on his hand-picked Steinway he travelled with, but I bet he’d still be Horowitz on my crappy upright. Can you reach the listener? Can you reach them, move them, inspire them, even with a second oboe that sounds like a mortally wounded water fowl?

    I think, to the extent I’ve learned that lesson, it’s the one that’s done me the most good. You can certainly hear that kind of experience in Abravanel’s work.

  2. Pingback: Live blog: The Complete Sibelius Symphonies « Everything But The Music

  3. Ken’s remarks re Horowitz made me think of Sviatoslav Richter and his 1986 tour of Siberia, where he loaded up his Yamaha piano and headed out to the hinterlands for six months, giving somewhere around 150 concerts. Many of these towns had never had a classical concert presented there, ever. He hated recording studios and most of his discography is live, so if you’re a Richter fan you listen to a lot of poorly-regulated, out-of-tune pianos. Doesn’t matter.

    For me, there’s a question of motivation–WHY are you making music in the first place? I know of a composer performed locally whose work is not only bad, it comes from no inner need to compose that I can detect. The guy conveys a sense that composing struck him as more fun than dentistry and offering the chance to hang with cool folks in Aspen, but he’d do either with the same level of engagement. I suspect Herr Pittsburgh’s motivations are also somewhat ego-driven. Abravanel’s example is much harder to follow, but (I think) far more beneficial to the world. Utah’s musical life has been immeasurably enriched and transformed because of Abravanel. Pittsburgh’s was doing just fine already.

  4. Pingback: Something to listen to: Sibelius Symphony no. 1 « Everything But The Music

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