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Classical Music

Minding Mr. Horowitz

He'd only play at 4 p.m. in a 72-degree hall. Contracts upset him. Food obsessed him. Vladimir Horowitz was no easy legend to manage.

October 05, 2003|Peter Gelb | Special to The Times

New York — In the fall of 1981, I returned to New York from my job as assistant manager of the Boston Symphony to join Columbia Artists Management, the renowned talent and booking agency for classical musicians. Soon after, the formidable wife of Vladimir Horowitz, arguably the greatest concert pianist of all time -- whose centennial was celebrated Wednesday -- invited me to become his manager. Wanda Horowitz had not only helped shape her husband's illustrious career but had also assisted her father, Arturo Toscanini, the most eminent conductor of his era. Still in my 20s, I was a little rattled by so imposing a task.

"Mr. Horowitz is bored with the same old routine of concerts, and we need someone young and energetic like you to present him with artistic challenges that will stimulate him," Mrs. Horowitz would tell me. Since my plan in joining Columbia Artists was to create a new division that would focus on special projects such as television and film productions, I began to view the idea of taking on responsibilities for so legendary an artistic property as a thrilling prospect.

What I didn't fully understand at the time was that those responsibilities were fraught with headaches.

The Horowitzes had been living in a brownstone on 94th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues since the 1940s, when they decided to make America their home. From the start of my new duties, Mrs. Horowitz would meet with me in the living room, decorated throughout with Japanese and French antiques. Her husband's trigger-action Steinway concert grand stood at one end.

Always dapper in bow tie, immaculate shirt and dark suit, Horowitz would eventually join us from his upstairs bedroom, which was next to his wife's. He usually greeted me with the same plaintive request: "Tell me why I should play again?" This puzzling gambit inevitably led to a long spell of reasoning and cajoling by Mrs. Horowitz, myself and whichever guests were present for the dinner that followed.

Horowitz, then 78, had often stopped performing in public for years at a time, once absenting himself for more than a decade (from 1953 to 1965). My foremost concern, consequently, was: What if he suddenly decided to hide from public view once again? Another problem was his reluctance to travel abroad. When I started as his manager, he hadn't left American soil in some 40 years. He once told me that he was afraid of jet airplanes and would never fly in one, that he no longer liked ocean liners and that he hated trains.

The problems didn't stop there. Chronically obsessive and phobic, Horowitz would not waver from his ritual of eating the same precise menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner for months on end and sometimes for years. In fact, he kept a bound red diary on the living room coffee table that was an exact record of his eating and digestive habits. What's more, he insisted on giving concerts only at 4 p.m. on Sundays with a temperature in the concert hall of exactly 72. He also demanded that his hotel windows be blacked out, since he liked to sleep well into the afternoon. And he would travel only with his own Steinway piano -- one of but a few artists in history to do so -- and with Steinway's chief piano tuner, Franz Mohr, in attendance at all times.

But for a manager, his most daunting stipulation of all was his reluctance to sign contracts. He explained that this notion was based on his abhorrence of canceling concerts; he reasoned that if he did not sign contracts, a concert of his could never be canceled. How was he to know how he'd be feeling when the concert date approached? "What if I am sick?" he asked, not entirely unreasonably.

With the help of my boss at Columbia, Ronald Wilford, I tackled all these issues. The Concorde had recently started flying, and the idea of getting to London in a little more than three hours appealed to Horowitz. As for his contract fears, we never asked Horowitz to sign a long-term management agreement with us. We didn't even list his name on the Columbia Artists Management roster. Instead, Wilford developed the completely unusual and somewhat nerve-racking procedure of signing Horowitz to a separate managerial contract for each concert he played, usually just before the first ad was scheduled to announce the sale of tickets. Each time Horowitz agreed to play a concert, he would sign a contract appointing us as his manager, but only for that specific concert. Noting Wilford's reputation as the sharpest and most skillful of all managers, the Horowitzes labeled him "the Barracuda," much to his amusement.

A true eccentric

Over the next several years -- despite ample evidence that his mental capacities were diminishing and his artistic instincts were no longer infallible -- Horowitz played to sold-out crowds at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and at London's Festival Hall and made his debut in Tokyo.

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