Kaddish for Maurice Abravanel
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Conductor Maurice Abravanel (1903–1993) was a scion of a prominent established family of Sephardi Jews whose history dates to pre-Christian Moslem Spain and was among the unconverted Jewish population expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century. This family’s most illustrious and best-known personality probably remains Don Isaac Abravanel.
Maurice Abravanel (who went by the name Maurice de Abravanel until 1938) was born in the Greek city of Thessaloníki, at that time part of the Ottoman Empire. His ancestors had lived in the region since 1517, but in 1909 his parents moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where the young Abravanel began to show evidence of the musical talent that was to distinguish him throughout his life. Between 1922 and 1933 he became intensely involved in the musical life of Weimar Germany. He was mentored in Berlin by Kurt Weill, with whom he formed a close association that lasted until the latter’s premature death, in 1950; and he continued throughout his own life to promote performances of Weill’s music. By the time Abravanel left Germany in 1933, in the wake of the 1932 elections and the resulting assumption of power by the National Socialists, he had conducted in numerous German opera houses. Like Weill, he went to Paris, where he worked for a time with Bruno Walter and continued to gain respect as a conductor. When he left Paris in 1934, his destination—and probably his anticipated permanent home—was Australia, where he conducted in opera houses in Melbourne and Sydney. An offer to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, however, brought him to America—and, ultimately, to his full-fledged career as an American conductor.
Abravanel remained at the Metropolitan for only two years, continuing thereafter to build his career in New York. He was engaged by various symphony orchestras, and he enjoyed particular success conducting on Broadway. In 1946 he began his lifelong affiliation with what was then known as the Utah State Symphony Orchestra, in Salt Lake City. He is credited with building that ensemble from a part-time community orchestra into the nationally respected Utah Symphony, which he directed until his retirement in 1979. A few months before his death, Salt Lake City’s Symphony Hall—for whose construction he had successfully lobbied—was renamed Abravanel Hall in his honor.
Abravanel led the Utah Symphony on four international tours, conducted it on more than one hundred recordings (many on major labels), and left an indellible mark on Salt Lake City's cultural life. But perhaps his most significant and lasting contributions lay in his passionate advocacy for contemporary music and the support and encouragement he gave to contemporary composers.
Kaddish is the Judaic doxology and affirmation of faith, which unequivocally proclaims and confirms God’s omnipotence. Its language is Aramaic, except for a Hebrew congregational response and the concluding sentence of the full kaddish text, which is also in Hebrew. Overall, it embodies the supreme acknowledgment of God’s unparalleled greatness in an ultimate expression of glorification, praise, and worship of God throughout all eternity. Each of its various forms or text versions is reserved for a specific liturgical recitation in the order of prayer. One of these versions—kaddish yatom (mourners’ kaddish)—is recited in memory of parents and siblings. It is the kaddish yatom to which the title of Lazarof’s piece refers. More than a personal memorial to his longtime friend and colleague, which of course it is, this piece was conceived by the composer as a tribute to the legacy of Sephardi Jewry—to Abravanel’s lineage and roots.