Impresario Leiser fears young piano talent will get left behind

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian

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.

 


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