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IN HIS RECENT MEMOIR, veteran impresario Jacques Leiser sums up his 60 years of toil with some of the world’s greatest pianists, violinists and singers. These days, he is worried about a 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. ‘They can’t do it on their own, and sadly they get left behind,’ he says.

What has gone wrong with artists’ management – once the key to success – in recent times? ‘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 knowhow. Their input is too limited.’

Leiser, one of the doyens of international artist 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’m more interested in musicians than performers,’ he says. 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 artist 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 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, adviser, lawyer, medical adviser, 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.’ He developed his instinct for musicianship by starting a record collection that continues to grow ever more vast. 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, Leiser did not lack 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 Arturo Benedetti 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.’

Looking back over his career Leiser today concludes, ‘The music world that young musicians are entering has changed almost unrecognisably.’ Among other things, he is dissatisfied with concert-goers: ‘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 legendary Arturo Benedetti 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?’ […] 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.

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 criticised 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’.

When Sviatoslav 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 theatre – by life itself.

MICHAEL JOHNSON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing