WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN IMPRESARIO
Who gets Yehudi Menuhin his orange? Who soothes Heifetz when they tamper with his Strad? Who’s rich today and broke tomorrow? Why, Nicholas Koudriavtzeff, the Montreal showman who won’t helieve that Canadians don’t want culture
THERE ARE two schools of thought, about Nicholas KoudriavtzefT, the bulky, fifty-eightyear-old exiled Russian aristocrat who has been responsible for the appearance in Montreal of a long and notable procession of great artists. There are those who feel that he is the last of a dying race; there are others who insist that he is the forerunner of a new breed of showman.
KoudriavtzefT is an impresario, and that is a word whose connotations hark back to the days of Phineas Taylor Barnum. The dictionary simply defines the word as “a manager of concert parties,” hut a richer aura surrounds it—an aura compounded equally of visions of flowing opera cloaks, parties on the grand scale, temperamental virtuosos and vast sums of money lost and won.
Whether KoudriavtzefT is the last of an old race of Canadian impresarios, or the forerunner of a new and sturdier breed remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that he fills all the qualifications, both legendary and real, and that at the moment at least he is unique in this country.
His silk hat, flowing opera cloak and silver-topped cane make their appearance at every Montreal first night, and these together with his goatee beard, his love of gilt and red plush, his noble airs and his extravagant tastes identify him unmistakably as a survivor of the rococo Edwardian age.
His willingness to plunge deeply into financial waters follows a long and distinguished tradition in show business. Last May he lost, forty thousand dollars on the Montreal presentation of the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Festival Ballet without turning a hair. Although he has lost a total amount of one hundred thousand dollars on his failures, his successes have, over the long haul, brought him a tidy profit. Indeed, not content with importing culture, he now proposes to export it. At the moment he is negotiating for the presentation in London and Paris of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet during the 1954-55 season.
To KoudriavtzefT, a visiting orchestra, opera, ballet or concert artist is much more than a row of figures in a ledger. It is a production all its own to be heralded with pomp and ceremony and much flowing of vintage wine. His post-performance suppers, to which even members of the corps de ballet are carried off like trophies, mean big business to Montreal’s cluster of intimate gourmet restaurants. As Mrs. Keith Hutchison, a wealthy, sparkling Montreal widow says, ‘‘Things have reached such a pitch that it is almost social death to miss a KoudriavtzefT first night.”
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What It Takes To Be An Impresario
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not the full test of the impresario’s craft. It has become a cliché to say that men of Koudriavtzeff’s breed must coddle their artists like a mother hen with brood chicks, but this effectively describes the most delicate and timeconsuming task which an impresario must face. To this challenge Nicholas Koudriavtzeflf rises with courage, urbanity and tact.
Adrienne Kontat, Koudriavtzeff’s indefatigable little private secretary, says there’s no limit to her boss’ patience with the caprice of genuine artists.
At three o’clock one morning the telephone rang in Koudriavtzefif’s Montreal apartment. The Polish pianist Witold Maleuzynski was calling from the United States border seventy miles south. The cruel Canadian customs men, he said, would not let his little dog enter Canada. The garrulous Canadian customs men, he said, kept talking at him but he could not understand a word they said. If the heartless Canadian customs men would not let bis little dog pass then neither would be, Witold Maleuzynski, pass. Did Koudriavtzeflf understand the significance of this?
Koudriavtzeff, who had sold out the ball for Malcuzynski’s appearance, pulled a suit over his pyjamas and drove toward the frontier like a courier on desperate business for the Czar. Once there he perceived the cause of the impasse, aroused a vet at dawn, had the dog inoculated, and back in Montreal pacified the pianist’s jangling nerves with a sumptuous champagne breakfast.
Does not Yehudi Menuhin demand an orange during the intermission? Yes. And Koudriavtzeff, who never allows anybody backstage but himself, delivers it personally and fondly watches as the violinist sucks away in deep artistic abstraction. Does not Artur Rubinstein, the pianist, demand a howl of hot water in which to dip his hands before every performance? Rut of course. What’s more, the water must be at a certain temperature. In Montreal only Koudriavtzeff can tell when it is just so—by dipping his elbow in it. So it is Koudriavtzeflf who warms the water and takes it along to the dressing room and stands by with towel in readiness to dry those strong, priceless fingers.
Who was it hurried so anxiously round to Josef Hofmann’s dressing room in a Quebec city when, after repeated reminders, the pianist forgot to play O Canada before God Save The Queen at the conclusion of his performance? Naturally it was Koudriavtzeff. And what was he to say to the irate citizens who waited outside the stage door for an explanation of this gross omission?
Koudriavtzeff emerged from Hofmann’s presence with the air of a man who had been through a mystical experience. To protect Hofmann he uttered a little white lie: “The maestro,” he said, “regarded the orchestration of O Canada that was handed to him as amateurish and unworthy of so great a hymn. Therefore he refused to play it.” The critical citizens marveled that there could be such artistic fastidiousness in the world and went on their way rejoicing.
There was another time when Koudriavtzeff'had to protect Hofmann. One day he knocked at the pianist’s Toronto hotel-room door at eleven-thirty in the morning and reminded him he
was already half a n hour late for a press conference.
‘‘Press conference be damned,” said Hofmann. “At this time of the day I sleep. Tell them all to go to hell.”
To the newsmen Koudriavtzeff said: “We are all to go to hell. Follow me.” They went to a restaurant where he ordered flaming crêpes suzette. Next evening, when another press conference had failed to materialize, they all went happily to hell again and waited there in an amber glow until the maestro joined them at the end of his performance.
Whether any publicity resulted Koudriavtzeff neither knows nor cares. “I handle the kind of artists who do not need pushing,” he says.
Koudriavtzeff likes to compare artists to performing animals. “After the show,” he says, “they always must eat. At once. Otherwise they get very an^ry.”
There was the time when Jascha Heifetz appeared to be dancing on hot coals in the corridors of the Windsor Hotel. A bell hop had moved from one room to another in Heifetz’ suite the sixty - thousand - dollar Stradivarius violin which, as all the world surely knew, must never be touched by anyone but the maestro himself. Koudriavtzeff soothed his jangled nerves by treating him to a lingering lunch of chicken in aspic and cool Rhine wine.
In the winter of 1948 Jacques Thibaud, the French violinist, later killed in an airliner crash, was traveling from Ottawa to Montreal and Koudriavtzeff, who has never yet allowed an artist to arrive ungreeted, was driving his little Studebaker out to Dorval to meet him.
A blinding snowstorm turned the aircraft back to Ottawa and so engulfed Koudriavtzeff’s car that he had to seek refuge for the night in a farmhouse. Next morning he got his car rolling again and was on hand when Thibaud’s plane made its belated landing.
“What a curse,” stormed Thibaud. “being turned back last night.”
“No, no! It was a blessing,” said Koudriavtzeff.
“How do you mean?” said Thibaud.
“Because,” said Koudriavtzeff, “I wouldn’t have been there to meet you. And I couldn’t have slept a wink all night.”
The compliment alone was not enough to calm the violinist. But after Lobster Newburg and Chablis he was ready to play like an angel.
At meals Koudriavtzeff himself rarely speaks. He concentrates on mastication, and little interrogatory backward jerks of the head to ensure that his guests are enjoying the food. Usually lie receives in return a slow bowing of the head and an ecstatic closing of the eyes. He dislikes drunks but enjoys his wine and is not above ribbing teetotalers.
In 1949 he was sailing from New York to Southampton on the Nieuw Amsterdam. Also on board was Anton I John’s London Festival Ballet. Each evening Nathalie Leslie-Krassovska, one of the prima ballerinas and a firm and vociferous abstainer, came up from the cabin class to join Koudriavtzeff and a group of cronies in the first-class lounge.
When it came time, to order drinks she always asked for ginger ale. Every night she was in the highest spirits and toward the end of the trip she trilled: “I don’t know why it is hut I always feel so wonderful in the company of Mister Nicholas.”
When she had gone to bed one of Koudriavtzeff’s group asked him: “What is it you have got that we haven’t?”
“Only the good sense,” said Koudriavtzeff, “to warn the waiter that every time she asks for another ginger ale he’s to bring her champagne.”
Koudriavtzeff with his gourmet’s tastes has a stout champion in Mayor Camillien Houde who believes that he is capable of raising Montreal’s name for entertainment high above the nightclub class. Houde often throws parties out of his private hospitality funds for the companies the impresario brings in. “Given time, that man could put this town on the same cultural footing as London, New York or Paris,” the mayor was once overheard to remark at one of these gatherings.
Others have followed Houde’s lead. Last September Koudriavtzeff organized a tour in Canada for the magnificent band of the Republican Guard of France. In Ottawa the French ambassador was their host. In Toronto the entire French colony welcomed them to cocktails and canapés. In Quebec Solicitor-General Antoine Rivard and Under-Secretary Jean Bruchési, acting for Prime Minister Maurice Duplessis, received the band with rich dignity at a lodge in the beautiful Laurentides Provincial Park just south of the Saguenay River.
Everywhere they went the bandsmen encountered such cordiality that President Vincent Auriol of France sent Koudriavtzeff a personal cable thanking him for his services to FrancoCanadian accord.
Koudriavtzeff’s private entertaining runs him into thousands of dollars a year.
“Hello” in Four Languages
When the band of the Republican Guard of France was on its way back from Rimouski to Montreal the buses stopped outside Koudriavtzeff’s country home on the banks of the St. Lawrence and all seventy instrumentalists enjoyed catering done by Montreal’s elegant 400 Club Restaurant.
Koudriavtzeff has incorporated himself under the name 'of Canadian Concerts and Artists. His company occupies a suite of offices in the Castle Building on St. Catherine Street West, in the restaurant, shopping and nightclub district of mid-town Montreal.
His own office is a richly carpeted and upholstered little den with walls covered by the signed pictures of artists he has handled. His thin white hair is usually in disarray when he works and liis collar becomes undone in the frenzy of protracted telephone negotiations in three or four languages. He puts in calls to England, F rance and other continental European countries as casually as most people dial a local number.
Financing in Koudriavtzeff’s business is a tricky affair which takes many different forms. During the recent visit of Sadler’s Wells Ballet, for example, he took no risk at all. He merely managed the Montreal appearance at a fixed fee for the American showman Sol Hurok with whom he has many ties.
Early this year when he headed for Paris to sign up the band of the Republican Guard he already had an agreement with Columbia Artists Management Inc. of New York that they would be responsible for the financing of the United States part of the tour.
The band made six appearances south of the border for every performance in Canada. Koudriavtzeff s share of the ocean passages, therefore, was one seventh. But he shouldered completely all the traveling expenses,
hotel bills, rents of theatres, advertising, decorations and other ineidentals in Canada himself. His total stake in the venture was thirty thousand dollars.
“If we sell forty thousand dollars worth of tickets,” he said, “we make ten thousand. If we sell only twenty thousand dollars worth of tickets we lose ten thousand. It’s as simple as that.”
When he loses money through an over-ambitious opera, orchestra or ballet importation he sometimes descends to the more lucrative middlebrow field in an effort to recoup himself. He was heavily in the red, for example, after presenting Louis Jouvet’s Paris drama company. So he brought over that ageing idol of the Thirties, Maurice Chevalier, and got all his money back. He paid the singer’s ocean passage and all expenses in Canada and split evenly with him the total box-office receipts. “That was one of my best deals,” he says.
On other occasions when his bank balance got low he hauled into Montreal popular acts like the Russian Don Platoff Cossack Choir, the French Les Compagnons de la Chanson and the Mexican singers of Luis Mariano.
Once he even presented Xavier Cugat’s Latin American dance band. But not all these supposed certainties paid off.
When Koudriavtzeff took Her Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal and staged a series of variety acts that were the rage of Paris he lost several thousand dollars. When he brought Lucienne (Parlez-Moi d’Amour) Boyer for a tour of Quebec after a triumphant season at Cafe Society in New York she was an artistic triumph but a financial flop.
Generally speaking his experience might indicate that Canada is a cultural desert where symphony losses can only be repaid by a bout of Xavier Cugat, but Koudriavtzeff is perennially optimistic about such things. Like his New York mentor, Sol Hurok, he feels sure that the tide of public taste is rising. Already he has ambitious plans for his 1955 season. His programs include a season in Canada of the Paris Grand Opera in a production entitled Les Indes Gallant. This show, which has been running for the past twelve months in Paris, calls for three hundred singers and dancers and is reckoned the biggest and most expensive artistic spectacle ever staged.
It represents a heavy gamble hut money for its own sake has never meant much to Koudriavtzeff. Financially his career has progressed like a roller-coaster. Yesterday he was down. Today he is up. Tomorrow he may be down again. No matter. There glimmers under the high cheekbones and almond eyes of his Tartar face a slow feline smile which hints at infinite contentment with his lot. Speaking of his business he says: “I love this poison.”
His wife, the former Tatiana Lipkovska, once a prima ballerina in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and a sister of the great Lydia Lipkovska, who sang opera duets with Chaliapin and Caruso, sums up her husband’s attitude thus:
“Nicholas is constitutionally incapable of understanding the meaning of economy. When he has money he is happy only if he is spending it in the grand manner. When he has no money, why then he is quite happy thinking up ways to make some.”
Koudriavtzeff was born on the Russian Black Sea coast. His father was a general in the Czarist Army and his cousins were courtiers in the royal household.
After the Revolution he fled Russia and wandered around Asia and Europe as helplessly and aimlessly as thou-
sands of other blue-blooded Russian refugees who had never learned to make their own living.
He knew what it was like to peddle olives in the gutters of Constantinople and to go without food for three days. He made a fair success of a book business in Berlin hut was ruined by the inflation of the early Twenties. In Paris he scribbled theatrical gossip for a Russian-language weekly at fees which provided him with a garret on the Left Bank, a staple diet of cheese and coarse wine, and meat on Sundays only.
It was as a theatrical gossip writer that he met his future wife who got him a job with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. They were married in 1936 in New York, during a tour.
He quit the ballet to take a job with the French Government promoting a goodwill tour of La Comédie Française in the U. S. in the 1939-40 “phony war” period. Then came the fall of F rance, the tour was off and Koudriavtzeff
suffered a nervous breakdown. Before he was well again he and his wife were down to a cup of coffee and a hamburger daily.
It was Sol Hurok who advised him to go to Montreal, and since then he has had more ups than downs. He is well enough off financially to be able to maintain a country home and apartments in Montreal, Paris and New York. He spends at least three months every year in Europe and two days every week in New York. The apartments, he says, work out cheaper than hotel bills.
Usually in Montreal he takes business contacts out to lunch at the 400 Club, the Tour Eiffel, the Ritz Carlton or Au Lutin Qui Bouffe where he can be sure of genuine French cuisine and a fine cellar. As a rule he eats white meat because his favorite wine is German, Alsatian or Lorraine hock. Sometimes he will drink a whole bottle himself. When he has no lunch date, however, he works from breakfast to dinner without eating.
Every week end Koudriavtzeff goes down to Massik, his commercial flower farm at Lavaltrie on the St. Lawrence, fifty miles east of Montreal and on Saturday and Sunday morning gets up at dawn to plough with his tractor, to hoe, or to cut blooms for dispatch to the city. His tulips and gladioli are famous. The Ritz Carlton, which is renowned for its flower arrangements, buys them from Koudriavtzeff.
The farm was named Massik after a favorite cat of Koudriavtzeff’s which died a couple of years ago at the age of sixteen. Massik is a Russian term of endearment for a small boy. Every Sunday afternoon at Massik Koudriavtzeff' has at least a dozen guests to lunch.
There is nothing luxurious about the interior of the old farmhouse hut it is pervaded by the singular personalities of its owners. It is odd to see among the commonplace Canadian store furniture a great tiger-skin rug, a Russian samovar, exotic ornaments from the Middle^ East, photographs of ballet dancers* and a framed ostrich-feather fan which Pavlova gave Tatiana just before she died in the middle Thirties.
At a built-in bar round a corner from the living room there is a more unusual collection of bottles than will be found ir. any other North American home: Ouzo from Greece, grappa from Italy, vodka from Poland and Turkey; slivov:tz from Yugoslavia, schnapps from Germany, and all the famous French brands of aperitifs like Cinzano, Dubonnet, Byrrh, Amer-Picon and Pornod.
Koudriavtzeff appears at Massik in marked contrast to the majestic figure he cuts downtown. He wears an openneck shirt, an ill-fitting pair of pants and ancient scuffed slippers.
There always comes a dramatic moment on these Sunday afternoons when the guests know that the cocktail hour is ended and the feasting is about to begin. Everybody has to help Koudriavtzeff move a table and pull back a carpet. Then they watch him unlock a strong padlock in the floor and lift a big trap door. For several minutes Koudriavtzeff disappears and nothing is heard but a faint subterranean clinking. Then he climbs out of the cellar, his arms laden with bottles of hock.
This excellent wine is used to wash down pâté de foie gras, Polish hams, galantine of chicken, succulent greenstuffs, tiny sweet Italian tomatoes, anchovies, big fat Portuguese sardines, potatoes cooked four different ways, cheeses from Holland and Switzerland, vol-au-vent pastries, soufflés, compote of fruits, nuts and confectionery that ranges from French patisseries to Scottish biscuits. With the coffee come the liqueurs, in enormous jéroboams.
After lunch the guests file rosily into the garden, or to a big barn near the house which has been fitted up with mirrors and an exercise bar for dancers. Here most Sunday afternoons a group of his wife’s ballet-school students come out to practice. The guests watch them rather as sportsmen watch the work-out of promising fillies and colts.
Tatiana Koudriavtzeff will murmur: “’Phis boy might be good,” or “That girl seems to have the flair,” or ‘ I his group is fairly strong.” But she never makes any grandiloquent claims for them. She has been running the school for five years and counts herself highly successful because in that time she has found one pupil good enough for the professional stage.
This was Andrée Miliaire, daughter of a Montreal real-estate owner. For the past six months the girl has been dancing with Anton Dolin in the London Festival Ballet in England.
Adrienne Kontat, Koudriavtzeff s private secretary, is also usually around on Sundays in case her boss wishes her to make notes after supper for the following week’s work. He sits in an armchair as he dictates in a mixture of French and English, invariably with one of his two cats curled in his lap and several of his seven collie dogs crouching at his heels. All his animals now are given musical names like Scherzo, Allegro, Andante, Forte and Pianissimo.
Massik, the cat after whom the farm was named had traveled all over the world with Koudriavtzeff. Tatiana Koudriavtzeff used to smuggle him into hotels under her coat. During the last hours of Massik’s life Koudriavtzeff sat up with him until five in the
morning. “Massik,” he recalls, “was a Russian cat,” meaning he responded to Russian words. One of his present cats understands English and the other French. “I once had another English cat, tie says sadly. “I got him out of a piano I shop. He was a lovely ginger cat. His name was Taffy.” Tatiana’s recollection of Taffy s
acquisition is less simple. Her husband went into a Montreal store to buy a piano, she recalls. The moment he opened the door he saw Taffy. At once he put all thoughts of the piano out of his mind and his first words to the storekeeper were negotiations for buying the cat. The storekeeper was astonished and pained. He said coldly he did not wish to sell.
A long argument ensued and finally reached a heated point at which Koudriavtzeff said: “Very well. 1 will not buy a piano.” This was the first the storekeeper had heard about the pos-
sible purchase of a piano. He changed his tune immediately and offered to throw in Taffy free with any instrument in the store. Whereupon Koudriavtzeff got around to choosing a Steinway.
Koudriavtzeff’s future plans are, as usual, occupying most of his energies. Next year he wall bring to Canada La Comédie Française, the renowned French national theatre whose plans to tour North America in 1940 came to such a sudden end. They will present dramas by Molière, Racine and Mauriac at Montreal, Quebec
City, Ottawa and New York. It is the first time in seventy-four years that the group has played outside France.
But Koudriavtzeff’s espousal of the Paris grand opera in 1955 will be the greatest financial gamble of his career. To bring three hundred artists across the Atlantic, pay their fees and expenses and convert Montreal’s Forum into a theatre will run into half a million dollars.
Koudriavtzeff dismisses all this with an airy wave of the hand. After all, that’s the only way to be an impresario. if