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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Could Silver Fox, the manager of maestros, be losing his grip?

By Norman Lebrecht / January 24, 2001

The changing tides in artist management

FAMILIARITY can breed many things, none more pernicious than passive acceptance of power. For 70 years, America's classical music business has been dominated by a huge management agency, Columbia Artists (CAMI), whose head office is menacingly situated opposite Carnegie Hall.

For the past 30 years, CAMI's president, Ronald Wilford, has effectively monopolised the conductor market. The shadowy Wilford, known as the Silver Fox, has more than 100 batons on his books - as well as 800 singers and 300 instrumentalists. He has made millionaires of maestros by slashing the time they spend with orchestras, which has had the effect of simultaneously draining the musical economy and diminishing artistic leadership.

Wilford, 73, has ruled the rostrum so rigidly and for so long that stick-watchers, myself included, assumed that he was up to his usual backroom tricks in the current round of musical chairs. We assumed wrong. Of the Big Five orchestras, only Boston seems likely to engage a Wilford conductor - a sign that the ringmaster is losing his grip.

The first hint of decay came four months ago, when Alec Treuhaft, a senior vice-president and Wilford protege, walked out of CAMI to join IMG Artists, the modest musical wing of Mark McCormack's sporting empire. Treuhaft is not the first such defector, but the manner of his going, and the assets that went with him, were significant.

Among the dozen CAMI artists who will join Treuhaft at IMG are Renee Fleming, America's favourite diva, the counter-tenor David Daniels and the busy soprano Susan Graham. It can take 10 years for an agent to build a singer's career and another five before star fees come cashing in. "This is a marginal business," said one insider. "You lose one artist and you're upset. You lose three stars and you're in trouble."

Treuhaft has refused to discuss precise reasons for leaving CAMI, but colleagues say he was dismayed at Wilford's inability to cede control to younger partners. "I didn't leave with a whole lot of glee; I have a lot of affection for Ronald," Treuhaft told me. "I did it because I didn't see a future for the company. There was an atrophying of possibilities."

At least two more CAMI chiefs are said to want out. Wilford has responded by yielding his president's title to Tim Fox, 44, but he has retained his roles as chairman and chief executive and can veto any decision as the majority shareholder. "I have no intention of retiring or anything like that," he assured the New York Times, which tamely reported that all is well at CAMI.

It is patently not. Recent months have witnessed steady erosion. Krystian Zimerman, the illustrious pianist, signed up with David Foster, a former CAMI man, at ICM; the soprano Angela Gheorghiou placed her US career with Jack Mastroianni, another ex-CAMI agent who handles Cecilia Bartoli. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a cherished Wilford client, removed its US tours from CAMI.

These were painful blows, but the real damage was being done in the paddock where Wilford keeps his prize conductors. Riccardo Muti was the first to break out, choosing Foster in place of Wilford to negotiate on his behalf with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which was seeking to replace Kurt Masur.

Masur, said to be furious at Wilford's failure to secure him an extra term in New York, was next to go. Two months ago, he sent a circular around the music business declaring himself a free agent - free of CAMI.

His fellow-German Christoph Eschenbach stormed out after apparently accusing Wilford of not doing enough to land him the Cleveland Orchestra. Eschenbach switched to Foster, who sleekly got him Philadelphia. Insiders said the orchestra's management found it easier to engage Eschenbach through a different agent; it was the first time in 70 years that Philadelphia had bought its music director from anyone but CAMI.

Wilford has bluffly denied any alarm and insists that any artist who leaves him is readily replaced. However, in the podium paddock, only Daniele Gatti and Christian Thielemann of the younger conductors have enlisted with him. The man who has gripped the world's batons like a wheatsheaf since the LP era is starting to resemble a lion in winter, unable to lead a restive pack.

All of which ought to give cause for satisfaction, if not outright rejoicing, among musicians and managers who paid Wilford's inflationary fees and put up with his homely wisdom all these years because there was no better maestro source. Two orchestral managers have told me privately that they no longer feel the need to take his calls. But others the world over are fearful of what might follow should CAMI crack up. They have grown used to buying artists from one store and are wary of upstart boutiques. As with communism, the music world has grown so used to tyranny, it cannot imagine a life without it.

17 January 2001: Baton handover
15 November 1997: Maestros and their millions

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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