His teaching is heard in musicmaking around the world
Is there anything very noteworthy about the head of a music school retiring? Yes, his old students might sigh reminiscently. But should the professional music community -- and especially the listening public -- know or care?
In the case of Maurice Abravanel, they should and many of them do.
In mid-August he marks his farewell as music director of Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif. -- after a quarter century of training serious music students for symphony orchestras and opera houses around the globe.
To the maestro, music is a sacred art.
"What with business usurping artistic decisions in many areas," Abravanel says, he stresses the importance of "maintaining a high musical, artistic, and human level." He insists that all of the academy's teachers have one thing in common -- nobility.
He points out that any visitor to an academy class would encounter absolutely no vulgarity. "The faculty operates on a beautifully noble level -- no pretense , no tricks, no egos -- each maintaining without exception the dignity of music."
As a result, he says, "the academy is one school where students respect the teachers. Consequently, teachers have no need to lay down the law."
Recently Itzhak Perlman, the world-famous violinist, joined a faculty pianist , Jerome Lowenthal, in a benefit performance, playing sonatas. After attending some classes on a woodsy campus, Perlman revealed to Abravanel, "You know, I have been all over the world, and I have never seen a school like this. I am absolutely delighted with the whole tone of the school."
The academy proudly claims that 72 percent of its alumni are professionally employed, its former orchestral players being represented in 59 orchestras and 44 chamber groups worldwide.
Abravanel's own career has spanned five decades and three continents. He was established as an opera conductor in Berlin, Paris, and New York's Metropolitan before becoming conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra in 1947.
Although the Music Academy of the West had been started that same year, it had tried several musical directors to head its eight-week summer music school. Finally in 1955, in desperation, Lotte Lehmann, one of its eminent advisers, asked Bruno Walter to suggest a replacement who would be equally knowledgeable in symphonic and operatic literature.
So it was Bruno Walter himself, who had known Abravanel's ability in Berlin and Paris, who recommended Abravanel. Although he was at first amused by the offer, having had no teaching experience in a music school, he finally accepted, thus becoming an administrator as benevolent and wise as he was musically sound.
At the outset he encountered resistance from another musical adviser of the academy, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, when the new director suggested giving Richard Strauss' opera "Ariadne auf Naxos." Piatigorsky warned him that when the summer music school at Tanglewood tried an opera, the orchestra students had gone on strike, not wanting to play in the pit. But Abravanel knew that every orchestral part in "Ariadne" was equivalent to playing a concerto, so he persevered.
After Piatigorsky heard the performance, however, he was completely won over. In fact, "Ariadne" was so successful it had to be repeated. Subsequently, students were challenged by scores as difficult as Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Arabella," as well as Beethoven's "Fidelio," Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande," and Verdi's "Falstaff."
When on a recording session with the Vienna Opera, Abravanel was challenged by musicians questioning that he could do "Der Rosenkavalier" with students. When he assured them that he had used not a single faculty member to bolster the orchestra, they were amazed, and conceded that they could not equal such a performance in Vienna.
After the academy performed "Arabella," Albert Goldberg, music critic of the Los Angeles Times, gave it a glowing review, which brought Bruno Walter to the phone to inquire how Abravanel did it.Walter, too, was dubious that students could handle such a demanding score, especially the rarely used C clarinet. Of course, it was tremendously stimulating for the opera students to be coached by Lotte Lehmann, herself the inspiration for Strauss and von Hoffmansthal when they were conceiving such works with her in mind.
Lehmann added prestige and glamour to the academy from 1951 to 1962, at which time Martial Singher, incumbent head of the vocal department, came from the Metropolitan to take over from the retiring Lehmann.
Abravanel claims the harmonious characteristic of both faculty and students is due to the fact that the academy board gave him "carte blanche" in making artistic decisions. With the exception of Mitchell Lurie, clarinet instructor, Abravanel has engaged the entire faculty, including Singher.
Although Abravanel resigned last summer, the board urged him to continue one more summer as music director, leaving the arduous task of conducting the orchestra to Daniel Lewis and opera preparation to Lawrence Smith. So far, no successor has been chosen to replace the maestro.
Thus when Maurice Abravanel now steps aside as music director of the Music Academy of the West, his artistic integrity and nobility of vision will continue for years to influence musical careers wherever the academy's students perform.