The Impresario


Impresario is an impressive label that has long since been eclipsed in this modern age of super-stars and super agents. The men who came to define “impresario” in the pre-World War II era through the 1950s in the United States and around the musical world were Arthur Judson and Sol Hurok.

If you were a classical musician with a performing career your life often depended on one of these two men who controlled bookings and venues worldwide, so much so that it took the U.S. government at one point to move against Arthur Judson in an antitrust suit that helped lead him to retirement. At one point Arthur Judson was not only agent to dozens of performers; he was also the President and Board Chairman of the New York Philharmonic, a post he also once held at the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Those were turbulent days for both orchestras whose musical directors owed their positions to Arthur Judson yet didn’t have the control of repertoire and artists that those positions usually command. Arthur Judson and Bill Paley actually co-founded the CBS radio network in part to help give Judson a further platform for his contracted classical performers. Both CBS and RCA’s National Broadcast Company had full time Symphony Orchestras that performed on the fledgling networks in those early day.

All that became too much during the waning days of the Truman Administration when the FBI and the Justice Department uncovered enough evidence to bring an antitrust case against The Judson Management Company. The government won, and Walter Judson found retirement an attractive option to his command of the classical music world in the United States.

Sol Hurok, born in Imperial Russia, known as Solomon Izrailevich Gurkov (1888-1974), who came to define the flamboyance in the title Impresario more than Walter Judson whose Dayton, Ohio roots and modest musical talents on the violin led him to the business side of concert performance. Both men dominated classical music around the world for decades.

Hurok championed his Russian roots, and he introduced American audiences to ballet companies American had never heard of. The Bolshoi Ballet was unknown when it made its debut under Judson Management. Arthur Judson topped that but it took him 35 years  until he brought the Bolshoi back to the U.S. for a tour during the Cuban missile crisis.

These achievements came to define the style, power and influence of the cultured impresario. Who you knew in classical music can also be the key to finding talent. In Hurok’s case, Arthur Rubinstein, a “Hurok Artist” returned from a European tour in 1935 and told Hurok of an American singer he heard in Paris. She was unknown in her native United State: Marian Anderson. Hurok heard her, signed her, and booked her in what became a life-long association and friendship.

Today’s classical music performers live in an expanded world burst open by the leap from old vinyl recordings, and from sea voyages across oceans to nonstop jets to anywhere. The former virtuoso elites of the piano and the violin have been joined by thousands of young artists emerging from every corner of the world. China, which featured starvation rather than classical culture in the immediate post WW II era, is now an annual source of world level skill and talent that seems to multiply annually — Lang Lang among them. The peer catalogue includes Cecilia Bartoli, Maxim Vengerov, Annie Sofie von Otter, Yo-Yo Ma, Andras Schiff, and Joshua Bell. They are all in the superstar category, they all perform 100 to 150 times a year across the world every year.

But here in the Northwest this list has someone less well known: Leila Getz. Leila who? She is a modern Impresario scaled down.

If you know Vancouver British Columba, if you enjoy classical music, you likely know of Leila Getz and may even have met her at The Vancouver Playhouse, the University of British Columbia’s Chan Center, or the ornate Orpheum Theatre downtown. These are among the venues where the Vancouver Recital Society (VRS) artists perform.

Mrs. Getz founded the VRS 44 years ago in 1980, against a lot of advice. “Big stars came to Vancouver in music and acting, but when I suggested to a manager I worked for the need to bring in new young talents, I was told: ‘You have to be kidding. I have to make money.’”  With the smile of someone who has succeeded beaming across her broad grin she said to me: “I told myself, to hell with money, I’ll try it on my own.”

She wasn’t kidding. Getz flew to New York, where, as she tells it, “I used a hard copy catalogue of talent agencies, made cold calls and went to see those who I knew represented some of the young talent that interested me. Those were pre-Google and internet days. Much to my surprise I was greeted with open arms, and quickly realized I was the rare person interested in the young unknowns. I came back to Vancouver with my first bookings and went to work.”

Today’s concertgoers may have a tendency to forget that Yo Yo Ma and Cecelia Bartoli were unknowns when they were younger. I asked Getz how she went about finding the young talent when they were still affordable. “Instinct, for the most part. I also had a close friend in Europe who became a kind of talent scout for me. That helped; but in fact YouTube and recordings were also my guides.”

Next question: How did  you go about making choices among the younger knowns? “I go with my gut…but you also have to be willing to take risks. I hear a young artist that I like, I book them, and I have to trust that the audience will share my enthusiasm….you have to build trust with your audience and that’s how we began.”

Two “young performers” have turned out to be lifelong friends and supporters of Leia Getz and the VRS, Andras Schiff and Cecelia Bartoli. Their debuts in Vancouver go back to the 1980s. In Schiff’s case he played the first Steinway Concert Grand the VRS was able to buy. He played “The Goldberg Variations” with interpretations that helped make his reputation as a Bach player. More recently in the wake of the Covid lockdowns a scheduled Schiff concert had had to be cancelled.  He made a point of returning to Vancouver as soon as the Covid lid was lifted and played two sold-out recitals including the Goldberg Variations plus an evening of Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven.

“You have to build trust with an audience” is how Getz put the fact that the VRS has built a loyal audience that regularly fills its venues. “But no one is perfect,” she says. “I have sometimes booked concerts that turned out to be terrible. I can remember three in particular that may have been the worst concerts we ever put on.”

What do you do then? I asked. “You apologize and move on. You have be willing to risk failure. The truth is you never know how a concert is going to turn out, that’s one of the big differences between pop music and classical music. People spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars to hear Madonna or Taylor Swift because they know what they are going to get. In our case our audience trusts us to give them an experience that may be even better: the wonderful surprise when an artist and a performer exceed even the highest anticipation.”

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


  1. Mr. Barett is correct: Walter Judson not Arthur Judson. Mea Culpa, my faulty proof reading with apologies.

    peter herford

  2. I’ve been working on a local dance history project, and so when I saw this headline, I thought of Cecilia Schultz, who was a producer and a presenter here for a big chunk of the 20th c. The press room at the opera house (before the recent remodel) was named for her.


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