Tuesday, February 23, 2016

An Interview with Sol Hurok (1888-1974)

The following interview was omitted for reasons of space from a collection of extended interviews with musicians Bálint András Varga, From Boulanger to Stockhausen (University of Rochester Press, 2013). We are delighted to be able to reprint it in English for the first time here.

I met the great impresario in New York in 1973.[1] I appeared in his life out of nowhere and disappeared again after half an hour. No wonder he did not bother to be particularly friendly. 

It would be unjust and misleading if I were to detail the impression he made on me. In my introduction to our published interview in Hungarian in 1974, I noted that I had found him morose; all my efforts to make him unwind were to no avail. However, if you want to know what Sol Hurok was really like, you should read the memoirs of an artist he had on his roster: Isaac Stern.

In Chapter Eight of his reminiscences written with Chaim Potok, My First Seventy-Nine Years, you get a rounded picture of the impresario’s personality. Far from being morose, he had an “expressive face that was always ready to break out in a smile. There was a lurking humor about him; he would with ease laugh or scoff at others and himself. His voice had a rolling pitch to it and was distinctly colored by his formative years in Russia and his Jewish background. He spoke several languages, all with a Yiddish accent. He used to wear fedoras in a rakish fashion, with one side down, like George Raft in the early movies, and handsome topcoats with fur collars; in later years, he sported a cane with a silver top.”[2]

Re-reading the interview, I cannot understand why I was unhappy with it at the time. I think his clipped sentences do give an idea of the way he talked; his self-confidence at the end of a successful life also comes through. Still, facing him in his office, I felt defeated by my failure to break down the wall he had erected between us. I even asked him if there was anything he wished to talk about, in case I had not succeeded in devising the right questions.

He then looked at his watch and asked me if there was anything else he could do for me. I carried my disappointment home to Budapest and gave vent to it in my book. You can see for yourself if I was justified.

Impresario Sol Hurok (1888-1974).  Marie Hansen—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

- Mr Hurok, what advice would you give me if I wanted to become an artists’ manager like you—what would I need to do to be a success in the business?

- If this was a business, I would never have become involved with it.

- What is it then?

- A malady.

- What do you mean?

- It is a kind of sickness, but you have to fanatically believe in it, you have to be in love with it. If I were not in love with it, if I were not fanatical about it, I would not be a great impresario.[3]

- When did you fall in love with it?

- In my youth, a very long time ago. That is why I have not been able to fall out of it: in 1909.

- How old were you then?

- Fifteen, sixteen. Or nineteen.

The first artist I managed was Efrem Zimbalist.[4] He was a stupendous violinist. I organized his first concert in Brooklyn, New York’s working-class district. I charged low ticket prices. That is how I started; initially in a modest way, later on I had more courage, I dared more.

In 1912, I launched my first concert series. I called it Music for the Masses. The venue was the Hippodrome, a hall seating 4700 people. I put another one thousand seats on the stage and also sold standing-room places. In other words, there was space for some six thousand people—and the hall was sold out. Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening. I made an arrangement with some newspapers: they printed my advertisements and those who bought the papers could get tickets at half the price. Except those who turned up right before the performance, at six o’clock: they had to pay full price.

That was my first big success. I gave music to the masses. It was the talk of the town. The New York Times carried an article on it, on October 23, 1926. The journalist posed the question: “Who has done more for popularizing music in New York—gramophone records or Sol Hurok? The answer: Sol Hurok.”

After that, everyone talked of me as the man who has done more for classical music than records.

I am also credited with making ballet popular in the United States. Cultural life today is unimaginable without it.

- You started at an incredibly young age. How did you come in touch with music, how did you acquire the musical background necessary to become an impresario?

- I was born in the Ukraine. As a boy, I enjoyed listening to the singing of young people as they made their way to the tobacco plantations in the morning or returned home from work in the evening. That was when I grew fond of folk music, and I learned that music could play an extremely important role in the life of a community, of a whole country. Nothing brings people closer together than song, dance and ballet.

When I settled in the United States, I decided to acquaint my new country with everything that is the very best in the world, not only in music but also in literature.

Sol Hurok does the twist with Nina Danilova of the Leningrad-Kirov Ballet.  Photograph by Lillian Libman.
 Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago.

- As a young impresario, how did you win the confidence of artists to sign a contract with you?

- I was at the time very active in the working-class movement. I argued that artists had the duty to do something for workers. I asked them to charge a low fee, so that as many people as possible could hear their concerts. They agreed—that is how I embarked on my career. If I had not believed in success, I would have looked for another profession. All my life I have endeavored to achieve something and fought, if necessary, against heavy odds. I am still fighting today for what I believe in. That is my advice to all young people who wish to get somewhere: to love what they do, to persevere and to fight. Then they will achieve their goal.

- What was concert management like when you started in the 1910s? Did you have many rivals?

- Rivals never worried me. They do not worry me now either. They are welcome to imitate me, I do not mind.

- What was your contact with artists like? The more established they are, the higher the fees they command.

- I never thought that way. Rather, my position was that the greater the artist, the smaller the risk. All my life I have worked with the most outstanding performers. Our contact has always been based on three things: loyalty, sympathy, and affection. They have all been my friends, not just my clients.[5]

- Your success must be due to your talent for recognizing talent.

- I have never made a mistake in artistic judgement. In financial matters, yes. I get a lot of praise: Hurok has a good nose, he has good taste.[6] Even if I may have lost some money, artistically I have always done the right thing.

- Will you mention some artists you have discovered and launched on their careers?

- Discovered? My great discovery (I have mentioned this already) was ballet. I have also had a hand in staging some productions. I signed up Anna Pavlova, I have worked with artists like Chaliapin, Isadora Duncan, Richard Strauss, Titta Ruffo, Arthur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, David and Igor Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Eugene Istomin, Joseph Szigeti. I have managed some two hundred artists in all. I have brought Russians, Hungarians, Germans, Italians. I brought Glazunov to the United States—look at that picture on the wall: it shows the two of us together.

I am not interested in the personal characters and affairs of great artists. What interests me is what it is they represent with their art. I invited Glazunov to the United States because I respected him and not because I wanted to make money on him.[7] I wanted the American public to meet him in person. He spent two or three months over here and conducted his own works.

In signing a contract with an artist, my main consideration is not the amount of money I may earn through him.[8] What interests me is his potential success with the public. His success is also mine.

- What motivates you in signing a young and as yet unknown conductor?

- First of all, I must see and hear him conduct. I must assess his chances, I have to talk to him. I have indeed taken on a number of unknown conductors. It is my job to make them known.[9]

- You have seen and heard every single artist on your roster?

- That’s right. I have launched the American careers of Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, Andrés Segovia, Ysaÿe, Elman, Alma Gluck and others.

- Is it difficult to persuade a major orchestra to engage an unknown conductor?

- It is true that orchestras want well-known names which attract the public. Orchestras receive no financial support; that raises an obstacle in the way of inviting no-name artists. It is our responsibility to iron out those difficulties.

- Would you agree that there are fewer significant musicians around today than at the time when Walter, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Kleiber were active at the same time?

- There is no doubt about it: in music, just as in the theater and film, there are not as many outstanding personalities as twenty-five or thirty years ago. There are some talents whose career is taking off, but the age of the great Renaissance is gone.

The world since 1914 has seen nothing but carnage. I hope the day of peace will arrive, when we are all brothers, when people renounce armaments and spend the money on support for the arts, in order to create, with its help, a better world. That is what I have always striven for and that is my message to the world.

New York, 1973

Bálint András Varga has spent more than forty years working for and with composers. His previous books include György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages and Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers, published in the Eastman Studies in Music series by the University of Rochester Press.

[1] The text of the interview is my translation back into English of the Hungarian version.
[2] Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years. Written with Chaim Potok. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2000, 71.
[3] I think Sol Hurok had every right to regard himself as a great impresario. His unique position in the world of music was testified to by a biopic directed in 1953 by Mitchell Leisen. In Tonight We Sing, Hurok was played by David Wayne. Other stars included Ezio Pinza in the role of Chaliapin.
[4] Born in 1889 at Rostov on the Don, Efrem Zimbalist died in 1985 at Reno, Nevada. He was not only one of the best-known violinists of his time, but also a conductor, a composer and a teacher. He was Director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia between 1941 and 1968.
[5] “We not only worked together, we also ate and drank together; we were a large family.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 205.
[6] “He was a flamboyant man who believed utterly in himself, the only person I have ever known who would refer to himself in the third person—“Hurok said that”;”Hurok thinks such”; “Hurok did this”—and have it come out simply natural.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 71.
[7] Glazunov toured the United States in 1928.
[8] “He would put up his own money, or find money, to back unknown artists. He would take on struggling young artists and try them for a couple of years, see if they caught on; if they didn’t, he’d let them go. He made fortunes, he lost fortunes.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 71.
[9] “Hurok was not entirely enthusiastic about having a virtually unknown musician join his august group of artists, but he agreed to take me on.”  Isaac Stern, My First 79 Years, 32.

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