Walter Homburger: the modest merchant of music

December 14 1964

Walter Homburger: the modest merchant of music

December 14 1964

Walter Homburger: the modest merchant of music


He can't read a note an from the limelight, but for 1 this onetime refugee from Germany has gambled his she resources—sometimes disastn filling Canadian coticen with the world's g re a tes

IMPRESARIO IS A NOUN resounding with implications of pomp and splendor far beyond its austere dictionary definition: “One who organizes public entertainments; esp. the manager of an operatic or concert company.” The word almost inevitably conjures up a whole series of affluent images — champagne suppers at Sardi’s or Claridge’s, mahogany offices guarded by platoons of secretaries, gasps of recognition from the idolhunters along the curb, and Rolls-Royces disgorging deep-cleavage prima donnas in front of La Scala or Covent Garden.

Such Technicolor fantasies are a source of quiet drollery to the admirers of Canada’s busiest impresario, Walter Homburger of Toronto.

A boyish man of forty with a rosy smile and an unquenchably optimistic nature, he has been a successful concert manager since 1947 and managing director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 1962. For four years, until 1955, he was also the manager of the National Ballet of Canada. Aside from his showmanship duties, he individually manages the careers of six musical artists, including one of Canada’s few authentic global celebrities, pianist Glenn Gould. Further, Homburger is a member of a three - man committee officially investigating the feasibility of a string of international Centennial festivals across Canada in 1967. He has earned the private friendship and public gratitude of dozens of the world’s most famous musicians.

This, however, is the same Walter Homburger who first reached North America as a German internee, detained in wartime camps for enemy aliens in Quebec and New Brunswick.

His first salaried job in civilian life was as a laborer on a farm in Ontario, which included quite a bit of midwifery for pigs.

Homburger’s entire staff as an impresario consists of his wife and one other secretary. He often answers the telephone himself and even handles box-office reservations in the unpretentious office from which “the Sol Hurok of Canada” zestfully runs his entertainment empire.

The Hurok metaphor is not of his own choosing, although Homburger speaks with affection and esteem whenever he mentions the renowned old New York showman, who invaded America in 1905 from his home in the Ukraine. “He has given me some wonderful advice, and I’ve even benefited from reading his memoirs,” the Toronto man says.

Unlike Hurok, who uses his own name (“S. Hurok Presents . . . ”) as a trademark of quality, Homburger has always hidden his identity under the corporate label of International Artists Concert Agency. Not one photograph of himself is displayed in his office, although the walls are thickly strewn with pictures of living and dead Big Names of music and show business. Most of them carry the stars’ autographs and warm greetings to the impresario. The roster ranges from Leonard Bernstein to Duke Ellington, from Kathleen Ferrier to Hildegarde, from Andrés Segovia to Bob Hope, from Sir John Gielgud to Louis Armstrong.

Homburger sponsored the North American debuts of pianists Paul Badura-Skoda and Friedrich Gulda. He was the first in Canada to offer the public such artists as Lotte Lehmann, Emil Gilels, Mary Martin in concert, Solomon, Jan Rubes, Teresa Berganza, Titto Gobbi, and famed orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic. He arranged the Toronto debuts of Victor Borge, Van Cliburn, Victoria de los Angeles, Shelley Berman, Joan Sutherland, Joyce Grenfell and the Robert Shaw Chorale.

Artur Rubinstein has played nine times in Toronto under Homburger’s auspices, and usually prefers to dine alone with the impresario if time is limited. The manager is genial company and has the knack of ordering and getting a good meal in a hurry. Naomi Lightbourn, a former Homburger secretary now working with the Ontario Council For The Arts, says her ex-boss "gets along beautifully” with his celebrities. He greets them at all hours at the airport or railway station and busies himself with their baggage and hotel arrangements. In his earlier years this sometimes led to bafflements because of Homburger's astonishingly youthful appearance.

When he was twenty-five, but already an impresario with two years’ experience, he looked about eighteen. One day he met a train bringing

to Toronto the duo-pianists Luboshutz and Nemenoff. Halfw the platform they asked how soon they could have a word Homburger. “Oh, I’m Mr. Homburger,” said their host, wit!

Oh ... he worked with his father, did he? "No, no, I’n Homburger, the manager.” The two musicians exchanged a Í dismay and stopped dead in their tracks. "Where’s our cheep. demanded in unison, obviously fearing that they had been lure ronto on a hoax by a prankish schoolboy. Young Walter bri duced the cheque — all concert fees are payable in advance guaranteed out of the impresario's own pocket — and the pianist:

The highest fee Homburger has ever paid to a single artist enty-five hundred dollars — to a pianist whom he refuses to “because then all the other pianists would want seventy-five hi Toronto.” On that occasion he had to pay a thousand dollars fc Massey Hall and an additional thousand for publicity and other a total of ninety-five hundred dollars for the evening. The cor a sellout and a huge success, but the element of risk adds spice venture and prevents an impresario from ever feeling bored.

Homburger, through long practice, has learned to change business suit into dress clothes in five minutes flat. Occasionally he has trouble seeing his artists are properly turned out. Wher François arrived in Toronto by air from Paris, he was one small suitcase. Homburger was astounded to learn that tf had packed his formal attire in a tight ball, like a bedroll, and gotten his cufflinks and his suspenders. With just an hour to ¿ concert time, Homburger rushed home to raid his own accesso coaxing an off-duty hotelman to press François’ suit — and pre press it and press it until it was fit to be seen in public.

Four of the artists Homburger personally manages are C They are Glenn Gould and soprano Ilona Kombrink, of Toroi tone Donald Bell, of Burnaby, B.C.; and baritone Victor Braun, \ up in Windsor and London, Ont., and now divides his time between Toronto and Frankfurt, Germany. The two others are Rohan de Saram, a Ceylonese cellist living in England, and Alfred Brendel, a Viennese pianist. Homburger has often presented concerts by Canadian soprano Lois Marshal] but she is not among his personal clients.

The brilliant but eccentric Gould was only eighteen, eight years younger than Homburger, when the impresario signed him up fourteen years ago after hearing him play a Beethoven concerto at a Kiwanis music festival in Toronto. Gould has stayed with him ever since, despite many offers to switch to other managers in New York or London. Gould’s Columbia recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations became a sensational best-seller in 1956.

Homburger disclaims any credit for the wave of publicity that launched Variations as the hottest classical disk of that year, but he was undoubtedly hovering in the background, dropping words where they would do the most good. The story spread that Variations is so difficult as to be unplayable by all but a select handful of the world’s most versatile pianists and that Gould’s performance was incredible for a youngster then relatively unknown. There was talk about his eccentricities — his munching of handfuls of assorted candies, his wearing of gloves even when it was warm, his humming and his curious posture at the piano. There was a story, too, that he sat down and played Variations at a large cocktail party in New York because the conversation bored him and that a Columbia executive who heard him signed him up on the spot. This yarn found its way into magazines with circulations running into the millions. Overnight the lanky Canadian turned into one of the most valuable “properties” in the music business. His detractors have contended that Gould’s success has been augmented by his well-publicized mannerisms, but Homburger insists that there is nothing phony in Gould’s occasional use of gloves to keep his fingers warm on the platform, or in the eerie moans that can be plainly heard through the keyboard sound

in many of his recordings.

Walter Homburger (centre), pianist Malcolm Frager, Mrs. Frager (left) and Mrs. Homburger chat by portrait of Sir Ernest MacMillan in Massey Hall.

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He and the critics get along — but he’d be happier it they’d ease ott on the tough reviews

"Mind you, it’s true he is exceptionally sensitive to cold and adores the heat," Homburger said recently. "I have visited him in air-conditioned

hotels in New York where he had the temperature up to eighty degrees or higher in his room. 1 wanted to strip to the waist, but Glenn was fully dressed and sublimely comfortable."

Gould himself told me that Homburger, in his opinion, is "one of the very few' managers who continuously look ahead, w'ho keep the long-term prospects always in mind." The pianist added. "He has an astute and flexible mind. Remember, Toronto used to be a rather provincial city. Against that

background Walter has done some extraordinary things."

Homburger has harmonious relations w'ith the press, but says life would be sunnier if Toronto music critics did not lacerate many of his artists with tough reviews.

"It’s true, of course, that any musician can have an off-night." he says. "But when the artist is a true artist, he knows when he has given a bad performance, or an exceptionally good one. When the Toronto notices con-

vey the impression that a concert has been a flop, despite the artist's own certainty that he was in good form and that the audience was deeply moved, he sometimes impulsively decides next day that he won't bother returning to Toronto, and I don't blame him. Fortunately, word-ofmouth is more important than printed reviews, anyway.”

This drew a tart reply from critic John Kraglund, of the Toronto Globe And Mail: “It's time Walter Hom-

burger discovered that the critics are not writing for the performers, but for the readers. Musicians are often notoriously poor judges of their own work. Besides, they don't have to read our columns if they don't want to. And it's sheer nonsense to say that if their feelings tire hurt they’ll decide to boycott Toronto in future. Bad notices never keep artists away; all they're really anxious about are those nice fat fees Walter is able to pay them."

Both Kraglund and fellow critic George Kidd, of the Toronto Telegram. however, praise Homburger for having expanded Toronto's cultural horizons.

The future impresario was born January 22, 1924, in the Rhine city of Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany. His father, a Jewish banker, was fond of music and the whole family once played Haydn's Toy Symphony to celebrate an uncle's twentyfifth wedding anniversary. Walter's

instrument on that occasion was the triangle. He took a few routine piano lessons as a child but never followed it up and cannot read music today, although with characteristic jauntiness he has several times functioned as a page-turner for the piano accompanist at violin recitals, an assignment that would chill the blood of less venturesome souls.

A fifteen - year - old fugitive from Hitler, the boy moved to England in the spring of 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War Two. A relative there helped with the expenses, but nobody around the newcomer spoke German and he learned acceptable colloquial English in three months.

Homburger's parents were briefly imprisoned in concentration camps but managed to escape and now live in retirement in New York. He himself was among those given the paradoxical designation “friendly enemy aliens” and interned in England after Hitler's 1940 blitzkrieg and the Dunkirk evacuation. Later they were shipped in a convoy to Canada. In a camp at Trois Rivières young Walter saw his first game of baseball, which he still rates highly among spectator sports. Eventually he was moved to a second camp, in New Brunswick between Saint John and Fredericton, and finally to one near Sherbrooke before he was accepted as a volunteer for Canadian Army service in 1943. He became a medical-office clerk, with the rank of private, and was on embarkation leave in New York awaiting an overseas posting when the war ended in 1945.

“I then finished high school,” Homburger recalls, “but first a friend and I did manual labor on the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Ramsay near Aurora, Ontario. We often helped bring baby pigs into the world. I enjoyed it immensely.”

Influenced by his banker father, Homburger with misgivings became a student of accountancy. He's glad he didn't stay with it. but the bookkeeping he learned comes in handy for the concert manager.

One of his boyhood friends and fellow internees, Gerhard Kandcr, was a professional violinist for several years after the war. Starved for music and dazzled by the concert life. Homburger used to travel with him on short recital tours. Meanwhile he was living in Toronto as a guest of his friend and benefactor Mark Levy, of Levy Industries Ltd., whose interests range from auto parts to bowling alleys. There were too many gaps in Toronto's musical fare to satisfy the boy from Karlsruhe. Encouraged by friends in both Toronto and New York, he finally took the plunge by borrowing enough money to guarantee a fee of $1,250 for each of three German lieder recitals by the distinguished soprano Lotte Lehmann in Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium in January 1947.

He lost a thousand dollars on this initial venture, but Homburger’s backers, confident that he was on the right track, covered his deficit, and three months later he recouped it at a triumphal recital by piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz. Since then Homburger has never looked back, al-

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though he has had his disasters from time to time and considers himself by no means infallible in his judgment of Canada’s musical appetites.

Unlike impresarios who think of music solely as a business. Homburger loves it in large doses. He goes to every concert he sponsors and many others besides, a total of — by his own estimate — two hundred to two hundred and fifty a year, most of them bunched into the nine months from September through May.

This means he hardly ever gets an evening off. Fortunately his wife, the former Emmy Schmid, a pretty brunette whom he married in 1961, is just as keen as he is about music. They have no children. Emmy, a trained nurse, grew up in Vienna. She knows shorthand and typing and acts as her husband’s secretary. A second secretary, Mrs. Ann McKendry, mainly looks after ticket sales.

The talent - search part of Hornburger’s job takes him to Europe every year, hut he doesn't do much traveling in Canada since the increasing pressure of work forced him to drop out as manager of the National Ballet nine years ago. In that post he toured twice from Halifax to Victoria.

Being general manager of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra would be enough for most men, but Homburger integrates it. with his impresario and managerial work in a day that often begins at nine in the morning and doesn’t end until an hour or two after midnight. At the TSO, he and the associate manager, Jack Elton, coordinate schedules, work with the musicians, and confer closely with the musical director, fifty-year-old conductor Walter Susskind. There are frequent meetings of the board of

directors and various committees.

The orchestra’s budget for 1964-65 is $565,000, compared with $381,000 for Homburger's first season as manager, 1961-62. The payroll includes 87 musicians, compared with 105 to I 10 for the New York Philharmonic.

Delicate problems can arise without warning for an impresario. Last season, for example, Massey Hall was sold to its ultimate capacity (2,765 seats plus 192 on the stage) for a recital by the sensational Australian soprano, Joan Sutherland. The fateful date: Friday, November 22. The Kennedy assassination at midday at first brought a shock wave that almost resulted in cancellation of the concert. Then it was decided to go ahead because people needed good music or any other emotional bulwark they could find. Ordinarily, no refunds are allowed at Massey Hall on the day of the event, but on this occasion Homburger instructed the staff to give a refund to everyone who asked. Only eight seats were vacant when Miss Sutherland walked onto the stage at 8.30 that night — and not one of those eight turned up to claim his money.

For the future, along with more and better concerts, Homburger nurses three ambitions. They are an annual Toronto International Festival of all the arts, a function for which he thinks the city now is ideally equipped; an enlarged, co-ordinated booking agency in Canada for Canadian artists; and his own final mastery of French, of which he thus far possesses only a smattering. But he is so completely bilingual in English and German that he even dreams in whichever language he was speaking before he went to bed. ★