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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Stewart J. Warkow

Stewart J. Warkow

He sits in his modest office on the 16th floor of a modernish office building on New York's fabled 57th Street and talks about music as an art and music as a business. He is soft-spoken, especially for an arch New Yorker, born, raised, and educated in Brooklyn, and he is totally unassuming, although much of his life has been spent among musical giants and management moguls. Stewart J. Warkow is Executive Vice President of ICM Artists and Director of its Conductors Division.

ICM Artists is one of a dozen or so artist management firms with huge rosters of international stars. Administering the careers and keeping the professional (and often personal) lives of so many gifted, unique, and often volatile artists on an even keel is a daunting task. I suspected that our interview would be frequently interrupted by untold emergencies generating great currents of high-voltage excitement. Instead, all was calm, and throughout our leisurely meeting I marveled at the ease and, at the same time, authoritativeness with which Warkow spoke. He is a repository of reminiscences, information, and commentary on the past, present and future.

An only child, brought up by an immigrant mother who had fled Russian pogroms, Stewart Warkow is a product of the New York public school system. He studied music at an early age — piano, organ, violin, and voice ("I had a pleasing soprano voice until my voice changed into something absolutely unusable") — but says that there wasn't any music to speak of in his home. At Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School, he hung around the music department — his common-sensical mother permitted him to pursue his musical passions — and participated in whatever musical offerings were available. ("When you're very young, you don't know the meaning of the word no, and you think you can do everything. Somebody needs a bass player for the jazz band? Of course I can do that! [Pop singer] Steve Lawrence was my vocalist for one term.")

His interests were always in New York City. He was a child of radio, listening to concerts and programs, coming into Manhattan to attend performances — The Telephone Hour, Voice of Firestone, the NBC Symphony — since radio concerts were free. Family economic fortunes being pretty tight, he did not go on to college but went to work after high school. He got a job in the accounting department of the National Broadcasting Company with the fringe benefit of tickets to Studio 8H to hear Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. "I attended the last concert Toscanini conducted, on April 20, 1954, only to find out that night when I got home that the orchestra was being disbanded. A few weeks later, I read in the paper that a committee had been formed to save the orchestra by making it a cooperative. They were calling themselves the Symphony of the Air and the chairman was [composer/producer] Don Gillis. So what did I know? I called him up and offered my services. I was 19. After work, I went over to the room they used in Carnegie Hall and licked stamps and envelopes. But soon they offered me a real job, so I quit my $75 a week job at NBC to take a job at Symphony of the Air working 100 hours for $50 a week. I lucked out. I did everything there: ran errands, ran the mimeograph machine, did typing, answered the phone, helped set up the orchestra, helped the librarian, whatever needed to be done. And I had a chance to work with a lot of terrific conductors. That's what started it all."

Among the conductors with whom a close association began was Leopold Stokowski who chose Warkow to look after his New York appearances and recording sessions, including his performances with the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. Working in close cooperation with both Sol Hurok and Columbia Artists Management, Warkow became tour manager for such artists as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Marian Anderson, Arthur Rubinstein , and the Royal Danish Ballet. In 1961 he received the first Avalon Foundation Grant to pursue in-service training in orchestra management through the American Symphony Orchestra League, working with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

From 1962 to 1968, Warkow played a major role in the establishment of the American Symphony Orchestra, serving as general manager while Stokowski was artistic director. In 1968, he joined Carnegie Hall as house manager, rising in 1978 to the Hall's top administrative post, executive director.

Following his 15-year tenure at Carnegie Hall, Warkow served as co-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts' music festival panel and filled the role of personal representative and trusted friend during the last five years of Andres Segovia's life. Quite a pedigree to take to an executive post in one of the world's leading artist managements.

But what, we asked Stewart Warkow, does an artist manager do?

"Well, first and foremost, he must help an artist in securing engagements. But it means more than that. You sometimes have to take them under your wing and give certain elements of guidance, which could include anything from how they bow on stage to how they dress and what they eat. Artists are children in many ways. They sometimes have to be guided and taken by the hand. A good manager helps in advising on repertoire and on pacing a career, to the extent that one can control such things. There are so many pressures and uncertainties that we must recognize that things can't always go according to plan. And, of course, artists are different. Some mature slowly and have a slow but steady career growth. Others peak early and then stay put or decline. Still others are their own worst enemies because they don't listen to anybody or have outside influences counteradvising them. Many are determined to go on a fast track; and others have an OK talent that doesn't mature and they tread water because not everybody can be Rubinstein or Heifetz or Toscanini or Stokowski."

Did he think that there was such a thing as an artistic personality?

"Yes and no. I would like to think that someone who is a real artist, supreme in his field, also has some level of intellectual curiosity and a particular mien or bearing, an unusually strong personality, and a proper degree of temperament and common sense. But I think that I'm painting a highly idealistic picture. Nobody ever said that all artists have intellectual curiosity. Some do. Artur Rubinstein was one of the most well-read artists who had a wonderful art collection and was very erudite. But there are any number of great pianists or violinists who don't have that kind of intellectual curiosity. Their ability as artists is not hampered by that. They're almost like savants, they are channeled into a certain field in which they excel."

The artist/manager relationship exists simultaneously on a personal and professional dimension, but it must always be underpinned by mutual trust. Both partners must be aware of the realities of the contemporary concert scene and how it differs from times past. The business, says Warkow, is much more competitive than it ever was. There are more artists of every category and fewer opportunities for them to be heard. The recital business in communities throughout the country is not what it used to be. Symphony orchestras are guided by their marketing departments into very conservative programming. "It's not like it was in the age of the management czars. Arthur Judson [1881-1975], who managed the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra and had a hand in the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the same time and also managed some performers, and who, when there were shorter seasons and fewer artists, could just pick up the telephone and get dates for his people. That age is over."

We interrupted by inquiring how a manager goes about promoting an artist. "Well," Warkow said, "the first couple of years are like Chinese water torture, just trying to get the name around. Conversation. Mailing pieces. Somehow making the greater artistic community out there aware of who this person is and establishing his credentials. Capitalizing on whatever successes he has had and making sure people know about it. It's a very unglamorous kind of routine work. Of course, the very first thing is to identify an artist who, in your judgment, has something to say and whom you can offer something beneficial to his career. That's not to say that managers always make the best decision or pick the best artists. Sometimes somebody catches our fancy and two years later they turn out to be not as interesting as we had thought. I think our role, once we identify a talent, is to give them a chance to sink or swim on their ability."

Open the pages of Musical America's International Directory of the Performing Arts and you will at once be struck by the profusion of artists' managements. The 1999 issue lists no less than 899 organizations professing to represent some performer or attraction. Many of these, however, are small operations looking after performers who may be locally known or university based but who do not have national or international careers and want nevertheless to be spared the awkwardness of self-promotion. There are a handful of offices whose proprietors wish to stay small, funnelling their resources entirely into the management of a select roster of international stars. But in essence, Warkow feels, there are some dozen or so that have the leading artists, deep benches of solo and ensemble disciplines in all categories and on all levels. An ICM may represent 200 or more artists in a given season; CAMI (Columbia Artists Management Inc.) might have 800 broken down into the various divisions. Moreover, there are European managements who represent their artists in the United States, just as our managements also conduct foreign activities.

One of the artist management's functions is to set fees, and these are more or less determined by what the market will bear. Major artists at a certain level, says Warkow, get very high fees and are always in demand. Middle-range artists get the fees they can command, and young artists start out at modest fees. Concert artists, however, do not get the same range of fees as a rock star or movie personality.

Warkow speaks wistfully about changes during his working years in audiences, in the market for concert artists. "There are a lot of distractions today, more so than there were years ago. Before we had all these media, music was played in the home. Music publishers provided printed music to people who were trained to some degree. There was performance at home and in small concert halls. It was a way of life. It all comes back to education. Yes, symphony orchestras do have educational projects, but no orchestra can reach all the kids, and I'm afraid that young audiences are already elite and that we're not getting to the street kids to show them what live, un-amplified instruments sound like. What education in the arts should strive for is giving young people options to start to make decisions on their own. The only way they can do it is by being exposed to every aspect of the arts. Schools alone can't do it. Neither can symphony orchestras. It's got to be sanctioned and supported in the home environment."

Warkow tells the story of an educational concert given by the American Symphony conducted by the late David Katz. What, they thought, could they do that might actively involve the elementary school kids? They came up with Mozart's "Sleigh Ride" [the Trio from the German Dance No. 3, K. 605]. They were to play to some 10,000 kids over a period of several days, so Warkow dutifully set about ordering 10,000 little sleigh bells from a novelty catalogue. When the boxes arrived, they discovered the tiny little sleigh bells, but nothing to hold them with. Warkow ordered 10,000 paper clips and he, with a squadron of volunteers, stuck 10,000 paper clips into the aperture on 10,000 sleigh bells. There was a fantastic sense of participation, of musicmaking, and although sweaters and sneakers and sundry objects were found under seats or in the aisles, they never found a sleigh bell at Carnegie Hall after a children's concert. But when some of those children came back the following year for quite a different program, what did they bring with them? Their sleigh bell — thinking, of course, that that's what one brought to Carnegie Hall to make music.

Did he think that multiculturalism was a valid avenue towards increased exposure? "I think it can be an avenue, but I think it's been used as a gimmick by a lot of people. I don't think it was born out of genuine feeling, a strong passion and an understanding of how to communicate with people on all levels. What good is it to take Bruckner to the Apollo Theater in Harlem? How to bridge the gap requires very extraordinary, committed personalities who understand that music is music. We represent Bobby McFerrin, the most remarkably gifted musician I've come across in years. He knows how to come across not only to audiences but to orchestras more vividly than conductors who have had much more formal training. Or Wynton Marsalis, as accomplished a classical artist as you'll ever find, who has the jazz band in addition to playing Purcell and Handel and Haydn, and who composes and does programs of all kinds. That's real cross-culturalism."

Warkow had touched on the subject of repertoire when speaking of the marketing efforts of orchestras and presenters. But what kind of music should our composers be writing that might be acceptable to patrons? "I don't think that a composer has to pander. One wants to be progressive, to have music continue on its evolutionary path. Some of the most successful contemporary composers have developed relationships with important musicians. Their collaboration has turned out to be more fruitful than when a composer sits at his desk and writes a piece, completely oblivious to what the violin can and can not do. How many times have you heard a piece that has absolutely no consideration for the performer, let alone the audience? Sometimes you see intellectual exercises that look wonderful on the page, but when you play (or hear) them, it's as if your teeth were falling out. But today's successful composers know that they are writing music for musicians to get pleasure out of playing, and audiences to listen to the music. Every great concerto of the past was written with a specific soloist in mind. The soloist had the input. I also think that the composer-in-residence idea — when symphony orchestras take composers under their wing and live with them and work with them — is great. It's good for the composer, for the musicians, and for the community to sample a composer's output over a period of time.

In a New York Times article, columnist Judith Miller wrote some time ago: "In each succeeding generation, a smaller and smaller percentage of the group of younger people will attend most of the performing arts." Many of us were shaken by the implications of Miller's study. How did concert artist manager Warkow feel about it? "To some extent, it is true. Unless you can make performances appealing to people, they won't attend. A whole change of the concert-going experience is in order. Somehow we must get people more involved in making music. Maybe the New York Philharmonic should have 250 musicians broken down into different components and servicing different communities in the Metropolitan area. Sometimes we put the cart before the horse. We have to take a really hard look at the community and determine what the needs are and tailor-make our resources to those needs. If you've been grinding out something for over 100 years, it's hard to make changes because there are too many constraints. It would really take an organization with the resources, courage, and initiative to say, OK, this is it. We're starting from Square One on everything."

It was clear that Stewart Warkow, a man who has spent a lifetime working with and for those who cultivate the musical arts and who reveres those arts and their practitioners, was viewing the prospects for arts and artists through the eyes of one whose principal concern was the society in which we all live.

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