Dec 17th 2016

Impresario Leiser fears young piano talent will get left behind

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Veteran impresario Jacques Leiser, summing up his 60 years of toil with some of the world’s greatest performers, is worried about today’s drift in the music business. He believes that too many young artists fail in their first few years because professional management no longer guides them through the labyrinth confronting them. “They can’t do it on their own, and sadly they get left behind,” he says.

Jacques Leiser

What has gone wrong with artists’ management – once the key to success -- in the past decade or two? “It has become quantity over quality,” Leiser says. “Quantity is where the money is.” The trend among today’s managers is toward a large stable of clients – often too many to nurture effectively. “They don’t furnish what the budding artist needs for growth and development. They don’t have the know-how. Their input is too limited.”

Leiser, one of the doyens of international artists’ managers and a former representative of EMI and Philips, worked with some of the greatest names in music, beginning with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and moving on to Sviatoslav Richter, Lazar Berman, Maria Callas, David Oistrakh, Dame Moura Lympany, Georges Cziffra, Paul Badura-Skoda, Bella Davidovich and Krystian Zimerman, among others.

At 85, he still has a sharp eye for talent. From his residence in Montreux, Switzerland, he continues to monitor young artists, and intervenes when he discovers someone with potential. “I have never really retired,” he says. It’s in my blood.”

Leiser has recently supported Joseph Moog, 28, a rising piano talent from Germany who is gaining a reputation in Europe. Moog fits into Leiser’s vision of a true musician. He has also picked out Tamas Erdi of Hungary and a young Swiss-based Russian, Igor Andreev.

“I have always sought out players who operate on a very high artistic level,” he says. “I’m more interested in musicians than performers.” Indeed, it is the current emphasis on performance that gets under his skin. “The trend is toward entertainment,” he adds, which can sometimes pull in audiences, but for the wrong reasons.

Leiser makes a distinction between the agent and the artist’s manager, although the two roles can overlap. The agent is focused on bookings. The manager becomes an intimate partner in the player’s enterprise. Leiser develops this idea in his new memoir, a rich compendium of anecdotes that he titled A Life Among Legends: An Impresario Looks Back, just published as an e-book.A good manager, he writes, “is an unsung hero … he becomes a friend, confidante, advisor, lawyer, medical advisor, and the architect of a career.” 

Leiser’s own credentials were lacking at the outset. He trained as a pianist but has always relied more on his “gut feeling” to identify talent that he wanted to work with. “I had to see qualities in the artist that could be developed. I had to feel something.” At first he relied on recordings to find that special feeling.

He started a record collection that has never waned. His Montreux residence is an extensive personal library, with hundreds of vinyl LPs and thousands of CDs sitting on custom-built shelving. “Records are everywhere,” he says. Early in his career, recordings “became the bridge which led me to management. My fascination with records remains a source of inspiration.”

Born in France and educated in the United States, he did not lack for chutzpah. His business-development technique was simply to contact the player or singer and offer his services. Inexperienced and only 25 years old, he approached Michelangeli at his home near Milan in 1963. They got on well and he made his first deal. “Michelangeli had no management at all,” Leiser recalled for me. “I was very enthusiastic about his playing but when he agreed to work with me, I was amazed myself.”

Lookingback over his career, Leiser today concludes that  “the music world that young musicians are entering has changed almost unrecognizably…” Among other things, he is dissatisfied with concert-goers. “We live in an era when audiences are often less musically knowledgeable than in the past. People today are rarely nurtured to classical music, and few young people are exposed to cultural education that would create audiences for classical musicians”. 

Worse, he writes in his memoir, artists have to take on numerous additional time-consuming burdens connected with their careers, often to the detriment of artistic achievements. “It is like having two full-time jobs,” he writes, “and this distracts from artistic accomplishments, which should, of course, be the artists' principal undertaking. The priorities have shifted from artistic goals and accomplishments and now focus on making a profit, which explains to some extent what I perceive to be the expansion of mediocrity and the increasing absence of quality.”

Jacques Leiser devoted his professional life to nurturing great artists, many of them pianists we take for granted today. Here are excerpts from his new book A Life Among Legends: An Impresario Looks Back:

Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot’s early recordings displayed tremendous, even spectacular, technique. He was a poet at the keyboard. His playing when he was in his sixties, however, would not work today; audiences would neither understand nor accept it. He would be criticized for wrong notes and not invited back.Franco Passigli, the Italian director of the Florence Friends of Music … knew Cortot well, and happened to meet him on the train in Geneva. Cortot was then in his eighties. Passigli reached for Cortot’s suitcase and almost dropped it because it was so heavy. He put it down and said, “Maestro, what do you have in your suitcase? I can hardly lift it.” Cortot turned to him and said, “ It contains my wrong notes.”


Vladimir Ashkenazy

I was in England when Ashkenazy arrived in London. The EMI staff asked me to speak to him about a contract to continue the work he had done previously on the EMI label when he was only nineteen. In those days contracts were frequently exclusive, and Ashkenazy agreed to consider recording for EMI, with one stipulation: “If I sign an exclusive contract, I want to receive five thousand dollars for signing. I have to start life all over again. I have children and I have to find a house.” When I reported this to EMI, the response was “What? That’s preposterous! Five thousand dollars! That’s unheard of.” Consequently nothing was done, and Ashkenazy went to Decca, who paid Ashkenazy the fee he asked. Subsequently he made so many recordings – over one hundred LPs – that both he and Decca were richly compensated, and EMI was left out in the cold.”

 

Sviatoslav Richter

When Richter was in form, everything flowed, crescendo after crescendo, it was overwhelming. He captivated his audiences in a way that no one else could, almost spellbinding them. The listeners’ attention was absolutely focused – nothing else existed except the sound of the music. He created an almost orchestral dimension that was beyond ordinary interpretation; he was incredibly inspired. Richter’s death was a severe personal blow to me, as well as a great loss to the world of music. I had known him for thirty-seven years. He was a Renaissance man – inspired by music, art, literature, and theater, by life itself.

 

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

The legendary Michelangeli asked me, “Do you think you could get me engagements?” to which I boldly replied, “Most certainly!” He didn’t even know or ask if I had ever managed anyone! And then he said, “Why don’t you look into it?” Dazed, I replied, “OK. Give me two months.” He then said “Va bene. Leave the Philips recording offer with me and I’ll think about it.” The meeting was over, and what an outcome! When Michelangeli … suddenly asked me if I could find him some concerts, I seized the opportunity, despite the undoubted challenges that it presented… Michelangeli’s decisions to cancel were unpredictable. (But he) managed to maintain himself through a capricious combination of cancellations and honored engagements.  I was dazed suddenly to find myself the world representative for one of the greatest living pianists. My enthusiasm and passion were such that I did not even consider this “work.” I was determined to overcome any obstacles in my way. As it turned out, there were many – including those created by the Maestro, who was rightly considered to be one of the world’s most difficult and demanding artists.

 

 

Another version of this article appears in International Piano magazine, London.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "A powerful new talent from Italy, Alessandro Deljavan, made his U.S. East Coast debut October 19, with a magnificent reading of the Brahms Piano concerto No. 2 under conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra."
Sep 18th 2019
EXTRACT: "This is some of Ilic’s best work. A California native of Serbian extraction, he is emerging now as a major player in a crowded field."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "Chopin’s two piano concertos are among the most frequently recorded of 19th century works, both for their melodic charm, their pulsing rhythms and their historical significance. Young Chopin wrote the piano part with exceptional verve, showing the way for future composers to let the piano burst free from its orchestral surroundings."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "David Fray looked surprisingly alert when he arrived for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast interview at a comfortable inn outside of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. We had both been at a midnight dinner following his performance at the famous piano festival. I left the dinner early with a colleague but he stayed till 3:00 chatting and laughing with the violinist he had just performed with, his friend Renaud Capuçon. Their Bach sonatas and a Bach piano concerto were the highlights of the evening. Over breakfast (David ate a bowl of chocolate-flavored cereal sweetened with ample spoonfuls of Nutella) we indulged a few minutes of smalltalk, then got down to business. He responded lucidly in French to some heavy questioning. He only stumbled once, at the end, when I asked him,  “What does music really mean to you?” His reply, ”That’s a big subject for so early in the morning!” But he continued searching for the words, and he found them."
Aug 31st 2019
François-Frédéric Guy was just finishing his 20th performance at the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. The 2,200-seat outdoor amphitheater was almost full as Guy displayed his love of Beethoven –playing two of his greatest sonatas, No. 16 and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”). After intermission, Guy took his place at the Steinway grand again and rattled the audience with the stormy opening bars of the Hammerklavier sonata. It was like a thunderclap, as Beethoven intended. The audience sat up straight and listened in stunned silence. There were more surprises to come. Guy’s first encore was the little bagatelle “Letter for Elise”. A titter ran through the amphitheater. Was he joking? He looked out over the crowd and smiled back. A few bars into the piece, total silence descended once again on the crowd as Guy brought out the depth and beauty of little “Elise”. Everyone thought they knew this piece by heart. They were wrong. No one had heard it quite like this. Huge applause erupted a few seconds after the last note. Several spectators near me wiped away tears from their eyes.
Aug 3rd 2019
Combining “telepathic improvisation” plus original instrumentation, two adventurous Australian musicians have just launched a digital album of 12 new pieces brimming with sounds never quite captured before in recordings. The pianist plays two expanded keyboards simultaneously while his partner meets his ideas on an 18th century cello. The result is a marriage of the new and the old with echoes ranging from Bach to Arvo Part. 
Jul 20th 2019
Extract --- Question: What is your view of stage antics of ambitious pianists – the swoons and hair-flicks (Khatia Buniatishvili), the miniskirts and six-inch heels (Yuja Wang), the eye makeup and winks to the audience (Lang Lang)? --- Answer: It’s all show-biz. All three of those pianists, though, really CAN play (though in varying degrees of success in varying repertoire). No matter how short Yuja Wang’s vestigial swath of skirt becomes, no matter how vertiginous her high heels, she knows her way around the ivories (I especially like her Prokofiev), and I think she makes music more fun for a wide variety of listeners. If she couldn’t play, all the short skirts in Christendom couldn’t save her career. Same goes with the emoting of Buniatishvili, and, of course, most of all, the ultimate showman, Mr. Lang, the classical world’s answer to Liberace.  
Jun 9th 2019
Australian pianist Shaun Hern Lee, 16, took first prize on Saturday in the final round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition following 12 days of eliminations and associated activities in Dallas, Texas.
May 25th 2019
  In a rare combination of artistic talents, pianist Jack Kohl offers seven erudite essays on great classical music compositions and his favorite readings, merging both to make an exciting volume of fresh ideas. Bone over Ivory: Essays from a Standing Pianist (Pauktaug Press, New York) puts on display Kohl’s background as a classical pianist and his lifelong obsession with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Along the way, we encounter Gershwin, Fitzgerald, Thoreau, Dickens, Beeethoven and Master Yoda of Star Wars fame, among others.
May 9th 2019
"On the day before he was to play his marathon concerts, Maestro Buchbinder sat down with me in the 'Teddy Bar' of the Grand Théâtre de Provence to discuss his love for Beethoven. He was relaxed and cheerful and spoke freely......An edited transcript of our conversation follows."
May 6th 2019
One of the more exciting piano experiences of recent years is the development of a 108-key grand piano in Australia, built by Stuart and Sons and expanded with additional octaves at bass and treble extremes. The sound is new and audiences who have witnessed it tend to erupt in standing ovations.  If you don’t live in southern Australia, you probably will not hear it in all its glory but it’s worth a detour. I have recently had the privilege of listening to a high-definition recording, at 96 KHz, to be exact, of the inaugural concert performed a few months ago. The effect of the expanded keyboard, known as the Big Beleura, is stunning to mind and body. I sat with a friend in his music room in Bordeaux, listening for an hour, flabbergasted.
Apr 16th 2019
It’s heresy to say this, I know, but the great masterpieces of the 19th century piano composed by Liszt, Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven sometimes leave me exhausted. The complex structure and concentrated emotion, the moods, the arpeggios and stunning fingerwork demand an effort to reach true appreciation.  And so when I first heard the new CD “Musiques de Silence”  -- interwoven selections of Frederico Mompou, matched with Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Henri Dutilleux, Frederic Chopin, Toru Takemitsu, Claude Debussy, Enrique Granados and early Alexander Scriabin – I felt a surge of relief. (Eloquentia EL1857).  The repertoire is selected and beautifully braided together by the rising young French pianist Guillaume Coppola. 
Mar 1st 2019
The lingering resonances and extreme bass and treble notes are new to the piano world and the premiere audience knew it, rising at the end for a standing ovation. This was the recent premiere of Big Beleura, a 108-key grand piano built by the prestigious Stuart and Sons firm, the only practicing piano maker left in Australia. Some say the piano world will never be the same.  "It's important," explains the designer-developer of the instrument, Wayne Stuart of Tumut, not far from Canberra, "to realize that we perceive sound not only through our ears but all of our body."  That’s how Big Beleura gets to you. 
Dec 12th 2018
The work ethic among young piano students in China shows no sign of abating as their tiny fingers fly up and down the keyboard ten or twelve hours a day. Competitions are welcoming the new Asian talent and European concert halls are filled with admiring fans.  Some of us don’t quite know what to make of it.  It’s not all about Lang Lang, Yuja Wang or Yundi Li. Potential new superstars are emerging every year. Brace yourself for more in the years ahead. Some 20 million young Chinese are said to be practicing madly as our European and American kids diddle mindlessly with their smart phones and iPads. 
Nov 28th 2018
French pianist Bertrand Chamayou [in the drawing by the author, Michael Johnson] plunges into major composers one by one, reading works by and about them, traveling to their favorite haunts, and absorbing their art almost into his blood.  As he told me in an interview, he tries to immerse himself in the era of the composition, and to think of it as “new” for its time. In the past ten years he has done this with Liszt, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. 
Sep 24th 2018
The rich culture of the proud and ancient Basque people is sadly underexposed outside their homeland, a remote bi-national region where Southwest France meets northern Spain. Their language, Euskara, is a world in a bubble with no relationship to other living languages. Most outside interest in recent decades has sprung from the sometimes-violent Basque independence movement. Basque music, however, does travel well across cultures, and is worth a detour. The French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, born in Bayonne, grew up with Basque melodies and lyrics in their ears. Now an established two-piano duo, their new CD (KML Recordings) Amoria” groups14 disparate pieces of Basque music they researched over several years. It is a departure from their usual classical repertoire.