fri 12/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Impresarios Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, Part 2 | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Impresarios Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, Part 2

theartsdesk Q&A: Impresarios Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, Part 2

The Soviet attempt to block 'fascistic' music by Boulez, and other stories

6 September 1961, The Times: a cliff-hanging year, with Kirov and Richter debuts - and Nureyev's defection

In the second part of this historic career overview interview with the unique British impresarios, Victor and Lilian Hochhauser talk about their razor-edged relations with Soviet apparatchiks and the pressures they came under to prevent artist defections. Victor (who is a very engaging raconteur) reveals the lengths the Russians tried to go to stop Pierre Boulez conducting Berg in the USSR - liver-busting ceremonial vodka sessions, and a solution of Lewis Carrollian ludicrousness.

"I hated them," he says, "but we needed each other."

Following on from last week's revelations about their friendships with leading Russian musicians such as Oistrakh, Gilels, Richter and Rostropovich, they discuss the risks they ran and the judgments they make now in the post-Soviet world as to what will or will not probably be a successful promotion.

You don’t look particularly for talent now in Russia, more than other countries

ISMENE BROWN  Do you feel today that there are artists now who could be pushed and developed more; there is a tendency now to promote companies.

LILIAN HOCHHAUSER  I think there are. Two who come to mind are Maxim Vengerov and Evgeny Kissin. But generally speaking the Conservatoire is less than it was. The violin school is not what it was. That has faded away, I’d say. You don’t look particularly for talent in Russia, more than other countries.

But on the ballet front, if you were starting out again, would you be trying to promote individual dancers rather than companies today? Is that your feeling?

LH I think the company name will remain, as far as the Kirov and Bolshoi are concerned. Occasionally you will get a Nureyev or a Baryshnikov who will enhance the company, but the removal of them would not affect the company. Those two great companies will always exist on their own great name.

VICTOR HOCHHAUSER  What about the Royal Ballet?

LH Well, I think the Royal Ballet is also in that category.

VH A wonderful discovery the other day - the Romanian.

LH Cojocaru. That’s how it needs to be, the company, with the names of individuals all adding to the lustre of it.

Below: Alina Cojocaru dancing in the 2000 Royal Ballet film of The Nutcracker with Ivan Putrov - find this on Amazon:

Is there a market for a Three Ballerinas, like a Three Tenors?

LH No. They need all the paraphernalia around them; the choreographer, the company, the productions, the orchestras.

What about a dream team: say, Bussell, Guillem, Asylmuratova?

LH We did that once. We had Fonteyn, Makarova, Seymour, Rudolf in Les Sylphides. At the Festival Hall. They were known as the "Star Wars".

VH We also did this pas de quatre with Margot, Makarova, and two others whom I forget.

So you booked up this Sylphides cast, and called it "Star Wars"? And it wasn’t like the Trockaderos? They didn’t all try to upstage or push each other over?

LH [laughs]

VH At dinner afterwards they were all quite happy!

LH I think they were all fairly confident in their own artistry. But we had that absolutely unforgettable season at the Festival Hall.

One other point about the public. You’ve got a 50-year perspective of British taste. Has it altered at all?

LH I don’t think so. I think the favourites are still very much the favourites. Tchaikovsky ballets. In ballet I would say they haven’t changed - modern ballet is still awaited eagerly by a certain number of people, which has possibly grown, but not enormously. I think the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev ballets still reign, and of course MacMillan came along.

He was the big help, wasn’t he? Selling ballet into the second half of the 20th century.

LH Yes.

You’re not really into Balanchine or Ashton?

VH Balanchine... [makes a considering noise] ... made a really important mark.

LH The Balanchine market is growing slowly.

VH How is our Balanchine [Kirov] programme doing? Is it selling? Not up to the Fokine, is it?

LH Fokine is selling better, but even so the Balanchine one is growing. It’s time for another Balanchine or another MacMillan, we really need one.

You were grateful to Kenneth MacMillan for taking ballet onward to the modern audience?

LH I think without MacMillan ballet would have been stuck.

VH Absolutely. Even in Russia they’re doing his Manon now.

What about these other real advancers for ballet: William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, Mark Morris?

VH What about Béjart?

Below, extract from film of Sylvie Guillem performing Béjart's Bolero in Tokyo (2009):

LH Well, I don’t mean I can’t see a future for them, but I can’t see a mass future in them.

You wouldn’t put them on?

LH Well, I would like to, I really would.  But we have to worry about whether we can afford to, whether the public would come. I’d love to be innovative.

VH Baryshnikov is very avant-garde.

LH Yes, but that’s Baryshnikov. You know White Oak would not work without Baryshnikov. Although I’m very much in favour of innovation, we have to keep our head above water.

VH Mukhamedov did some of that, quite a lot of that stuff.  And the public came.

LH It wasn’t much.

sylvie_giselle_VHpresentsCould you sell Giselle without Guillem? [The Hochhausers promoted Guillem's Giselle with La Scala Ballet at the Royal Opera House that summer, poster left]

VH At the Opera House? No.

LH No. As far as music is concerned, I think we can almost singlehandedly thank Pierre Boulez for the still growing popularity of music from the 20th century.  Not avant-garde music, I mean.

VH I must tell you about Boulez in Moscow.

LH That’s a long story, and I must go. But an interesting one. [Lilian offers me a sandwich, Victor offers me a drink, and Lilian leaves]

VH. A priori all our activities were under the Anglo Soviet cultural agreement, so I had a kind of blessing. I operated, as they knew, under approval; every time I went to the ambassador, it would be made under the government agreement, not a personal capacity.  So that was protected. But more important is what could go wrong was when diplomatic relations broke down, or they sent tanks into the streets of Prague, or Budapest; i was the one who suffered, because you couldn’t insure against political risks like that. They cancelled a lot of things after 1968. They cancelled all the artists we had - about six or seven contracts. But not one - one was kept going, in Manchester, not London. Janssons, the father of Maris Janssons. He was the window. When Shostakovich came here, he was invited to visit the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, at No 10, and this visit is reproduced in his biography, one of the great events of his life. And this photograph sits on his piano in Salisbury, a beautiful place near the cathedral.

But more important is to get back to this Boulez story. This is a remarkable story, and you are the first to know,  at least officially. It’s a tragi-comedy. We arranged this BBC SO tour to Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Six concerts scheduled in Russia, three each in Moscow and Leningrad. Principal conductor was Pierre Boulez (pictured below right). We signed the contract; the concert would be broadcast, and the conductors would be Barbirolli and Boulez, programme chosen by the conductors. Boulez was just another conductor they’d never heard of.

We went to Poland. Suddenly they caught up with me. Apparently Shostakovich said he wanted to go to a concert of Boulez (pictured below). Who is this Boulez, they said - they took fright. I said, oh, a composer. The orchestra was also in Warsaw, arrived from Prague, Lilian was with them. I arrived there to make sure everything was all right. Suddenly I get a phone call from Stepanov, checking all the arrangements. They want to come and see me. Very unusual. Head of Gosconcert and other people. Four or five people want to come to my hotel. I say, just come. Seven or eight people turn up at the hotel, come up to my room. Suddenly they say, can we order you something - caviar and vodka maybe. I say, no, no, I’m happy to see you but this is unusual. They say, now let’s have a drink to the Anglo-Soviet agreement - and so I knew they were going to cancel.

Pierre_BoulezThey say, you have two conductors: this Boulez, who is he? I say, a famous composer and conductor. But he is a fascist, they say. Boulez a fascist? From what I know, I say, he’s not at all political, but very progressive in his views, very humanitarian. But his music is fascist, they say. I say, what do you mean? What is fascist music?

Music that’s modern, fascist, the kind of music we don’t want to hear in Russia. I say, excuse me, but you signed the contract. They say, could you please tell him you would like to change the conductor; we are happy with Barbirolli and Brahms, Schubert, Sibelius etc, but we don’t want Boulez. But he’s the principal conductor, I say. We didn’t realise that, they say. But you signed the contract, I say - look here: "Pierre Boulez". I say, look I can’t change the contract, even if I wanted to, which I don’t.

They say, at least consider changing the programme. We don’t want any Boulez on it, Berg is terrible; maybe not Webern either. I say, look, keep me out of this. This is going to be difficult. He’s the principal conductor, and the orchestra is arriving the day after tomorrow at Belorussky station at 9 o’clock. They say, you speak to Sir William Glock [BBC Controller of Music 1959-72]. I say, yes, I’ll do that. Meet you at 9 o’clock. They left, all of them.

I jumped into a taxi and went straight to the ambassador and said, look, this is what they want. We would never agree to this, Sir William Glock would never agree to this - what, to send Boulez home? What we’ll do is, if they don’t like it they can lump it and the orchestra will simply go home. In the meantime I sent a message to Lilian to tell Glock what was going on. It had all been an enormous success in Poland, besides! The Polish wanted Boulez back again and again! They lived in a different world.

John__Evelyn_BarbirolliSo we travelled to the hotel - you should have seen the effort they made to welcome us. Fantastic. Drinks, everything. We all sat down, and at a corner table was Sir John Barbirolli and his wife (Sir John and Lady Evelyn pictured left), Boulez, other people. We had a special table, I, Lilian, Sir William Glock, someone from the embassy, and of course the Russians. And this man says to me, let’s drink a toast - to the women of England and Russia! So I said, all right. Glock was quite a good drinker. And another toast for - I don’t know - music. And one more toast: for the success of your visit. This is the most important one, he said.

Why is it the most important one? I ask. He said, because we would like you to reconsider this conductor, because it’s not the kind of music we want to hear here, and it’s going to spoil the whole tenor of your visit. So Glock said, how many toasts have I drunk? Four, is it? Even if you give me 40, I won’t change it! When is the next train back to London? Let us know. We’ll all go back on it if you don’t want us to perform. The principal conductor? You agreed to it. If you’d thought of it before, we wouldn’t have done this agreement. But now we’re here. There he is over there, are you suggesting I go up to him and tell him you don’t want him?

Yes, he says.  Again he says, he writes fascist music! Glock laughs. What do you mean? Fascist music? There are the three concerts by Barbirolli and three by Boulez - if any are changed we will all go home tomorrow and there will be a big scandal.

Well, the Russians had to achieve something. So instead of Berg’s opus 6, they did an early piece of Webern. The Russians wanted to report back home: look how we got it changed! We got that bad fascist music out and substituted it!

Below, Boulez conducts his own Eclat (1965):

Anyway, at the concerts the public didn’t understand this kind of music, but how they loved it. They wouldn’t let Boulez go. You should have seen the reaction to Eclat. Standing, shouting, screaming. And there in the corner were these people standing, looking very glum.  This is such a crazy system - do they think the revolution will come back because Boulez played his music? The whole Russian system will collapse? They only needed to realise that by not preventing defections they would have stopped defections happening. Had they left it all alone, Nureyev would not have left.

Yes, but you wouldn’t have made so much money!

VH I want to tell you about money. I tell you, I could make a living in this country anyway. I was able, yes, to make a very good living; people like Yehudi would sell out in five minutes. I mean, it was nice to have Oistrakh, nice to have Richter - but I would have made this career even without them. Had the Russians threatened me, we will take all the artists out and make you starve, that would have been blackmail.  But for one thing I’m not of a nature to be blackmailed, and for another, in this country, if you can’t make a living one way you can make it another. Yes, we made money, and we lost money on them. But we made money before the Russians and without them too.

Had they not been friends of ours, we couldn’t have brought them out. Men like Oistrakh need someone to talk to

Does it surprise you that you didn’t have more competition to promote them?

VH I must say that after the war there was no competition.

Wasn’t that rather dozy of others not to realise?

VH Yehudi, Oistrakh would not have come if it hadn’t been us - they would have stayed at home.  We did occasionally do joint concerts with Ian Hunter of Harold Holt, so there was some kind of competition with Ian Hunter in those days, friendly competition but never any nastiness about it. Ian Hunter is a very good close personal friend of mine.

I assume the relations you had to build with the Soviets were very delicate matters; not the sort of thing that just anyone could steam in and pick up a phone to arrange.

VH Had they not been friends of ours, these people, we couldn’t have kept bringing them out. Men like Oistrakh need someone to talk to. They can’t say these things at home. They’re very emotional. Maybe Richter is not a typical Russian. But I speak Russian and I understand their motives. I used to practically live in the Oistrakhs’ house, the house Prokofiev had before him. Sometimes he was away, and I would be there with his wife Tamara.

Below, David Oistrakh plays his cadenza from Shostakovich's violin concerto no 1:

So of these people you had to deal with in Russia, the bureaucrats, who were the memorable people?

VH I hated them all. Usually you know Russians go kiss-kiss. I never ever. I can smell these people. First I can smell anti-Semitism. But I can also smell antipathy. There was one fellow, a real nasty apparatchik. He knew that I knew. He knew that he couldn’t trust me. And he was probably in the KGB anyway. He was always very cold-blooded, but we knew that we needed each other. He needed me because of my money, and also I knew the artists and they couldn’t do away with that. Not in the case of the very important ones - the little ones were easier.

But one day I was sitting at Oistrakh’s house, and I saw there was a violinist in there, who grew up with him in Odessa and went to the same professor. Oistrakh had a Jewish family - his father was a restaurateur and baker, a famous Jewish restaurant and famous baker. And the mother sacrificed the last penny to get him studying with this professor, and his father would have given away his very last thing to make sure he got the right education. And there was this other chap, who grew up with him; studied with the same man, won the same prizes, both equally good - and suddenly Oistrakh made it and flew away and this fellow stayed behind. Played in theatre orchestra pits. Anyway he looked at Oistrakh and said, “I am so happy this happened to my best friend. But I couldn’t understand why it happened to him and not to me. I’m happy and sad. Because I don’t know why.” Of course, it is impossible to know the reason. And one gets letters from very good people who ask, why not me? And it’s impossible to say.

Interesting that Oistrakh, being Jewish, was allowed out.

VH No, many Jews were allowed out. In the Leningrad Philharmonic, 60 or 70 percent Jewish. (Later he tells me that Beecham picked the balance of Jews and non-Jews in the major orchestras was to get the perfect balance of schmaltz and intellectualism into an orchestra)

Dubinsky in the Borodin Quartet wrote about that. Did you know him?

VH I discovered him.

I suppose people might have seen you as the mealticket, the man with the door to the West.

VH I was the first one.

The only one?

VH No. But you see what happened later on when we fell out with them. You see, if you’re a smart impresario you can’t lose money, and you certainly shouldn’t go bankrupt.

What is the business? When you are trying to sell the Bolshoi and the Kirov, what is the right way?

VH It’s not business. It’s as long as your relationship with the artists lasts.  [He nearly knocks over an ancient-looking dish on a table next to him. I stop him in time.]

Oooh, you would have been in the doghouse there.

VH By looking at it even I would be. Thank you very much for saving my life. My marriage would have gone off for a few years. This could have been enough to break it.

When you bring over the ballet companies you always book the repertoire?

VH Always. We pay the money, so we call the tune. It’s always the promoter who programmes. Yes, perhaps, if there is something new, they want to do it. The Bolshoi wanted to put on something that I didn’t want, they wanted to do Pharaoh’s Daughter, and Russian Hamlet. Who wants that?

Boris Akimov [the incoming ballet director at the Bolshoi at the time] is keen to put on Ashton’s Fille mal gardée.

VH Well, why? Why put on that? Is it the greatest ballet? It’s all right. But one should do something special. I remember Nadia Nerina did it and yes it was a success, but this is not one of the greatest things... Why not do something like Manon?

This business is about the artists, and it’s a risky business. It is just as easy to lose everything as to make it.

Tell me about your children. There is Daniel, a cancer specialist.

VH Yes, and Simon, a very successful businessman who does video on demand. The other day he told me he raised £250 million. This technology thing bypasses me completely. Perhaps I’m not smart enough. My daughter Shari’s son got married recently. She is in charge of the Israel Festival, in Jerusalem. A lot of Arabs also involved. She lives in Jerusalem, her husband is a very distinguished doctor too. Daniel is the cancer consultant; Mark works for the Israeli diplomatic service and also lives in Jerusalem, trying to make peace in the world; Simon, Shari. Four children, 11 grandchildren.

Who plays music?

VH They all play. My daughter is a very, very fine pianist. All my grandchildren play. Rostropovich gave them lessons, musical tests, gave them marks every time he came. Not professional, of course, but every single one of them plays, and they all play together beautifully. One sings, one plays the violin - played the double concerto with Shlomo Mintz. Very musical, extremely clever, brilliant. I’ve got a grandson who is really a genius - he tells me things about music that I’ve never heard of. Unfortunately they don’t come here often enough.

You see, this is not a business as you understand it for children to take over. It’s about the artists, and it’s a risky business. It is just as easy to lose everything as to make it, just like that. Look as the others - even Sol Hurok in America (pictured right) lost money.

Sol_Hurok_presents_picHurok [the impresario] was the equivalent of you, wasn’t he? Who took the bigger risks - you or him?

VH I knew him very well. He was a great friend of mine. I think he must have taken bigger risks probably, because in America you do. He was a remarkable man, had a wonderful nose, a sort of smell for it. He was the first to take over all the old Russians. [Note: Hurok presented Sviatoslav Richter's Western debut concerts in 1960 at the Carnegie Hall, New York.]

He was also the man who insisted MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet should premiere with Fonteyn and Nureyev.

VH Yes, he was a typical businessman of wonderful instinct. He was really one who went to Russia to fight them - he hated them more than I did. He gave some money to a huge national fund at the time of the Six-Day War - I couldn’t believe it. He went to Russia to negotiate something, and they said, you’re helping the aggressors. He said, I don’t want to discuss it. He had a very strong sense, but he was a businessman a priori. He lost money on the Bolshoi Opera, and he also did a few experimental things which didn’t bring him anything.

On his 80th birthday - you may have heard this, it’s a famous story - at Carnegie Hall, many of the artists whom he presented and discovered, like Isaac Stern, Marian Anderson, Nureyev, a very big party and tickets were $1000, the money went to the New York Arts Foundation or something. The Mayor had a speech, all that, it was a very expensive charity function. So the Mayor said to Hurok beforehand, I’ve got to do something here, give me some facts about what you used to do. Hurok told him, I brought this and that artist, and Russia, and so on, and I support this charity and I’m a patron of that thing for talented young dancers, and so on and so on... oh, and one more thing, don’t forget to say that I’m a very modest man!

But his business changed hands and disintegrated. I met his son later, passing through London a year after he died, and he told me, Papa took everything with him! Nothing left at all. It’s all gone. So  it’s not an easy business. You can easily lose money. And I’ve lost money on occasion.

If there was one concert you could call up from all the things you arranged...

VH One is difficult. Maybe two or three. Richter's debut concert, of course. And going back to the late 1940s when I started, my association with Sir Thomas Beecham. He was a strange man, actually. I asked him to do three concerts in the Albert Hall. I went to his house, he had a wife called Betty Humby, a pianist, Lady Beecham. He was very supportive of this idea of a foreign refugee coming to him - there was something there which he felt something about. He said, you know what, I’ll do three popular programmes, you’ll sell out and make money. He charged £200 per concert; one Tchaikovsky concert, one Beethoven one, one mixed one - Debussy, Mozart, Delius, Sibelius. Of course he was a wonderful wit so I said to him, Sir Thomas, it would be wonderful if you could introduce this concert, with all your sense of fun, to introduce it to the audience, it would be great fun. He agreed.

The leaflet said: "Sir Thomas Beecham, Baronet will introduce the items in the programme..." By 7.15 the place was jam-packed. The public was seated. 7.30 no sign of him. About 10 minutes later he walked in slowly; audience getting restive. He walks on very slowly. Says, "Ladies and gentlemen. Let the music speak for itself." Not one other word! I thought, the audience won’t like that. But they all roared with laughter. Not a single person wanted their money back. To this very day he never cashed our cheques.

Part 1: 'The Soviets realised art was a wonderful export that could make money for them'


Below, Sir Thomas Beecham introduces his new Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932 (Movietone News):

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