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18 minutes reading time (3566 words)

A Life among Legends

Jacques Leiser. © Jacques Leiser

Richter, Michelangeli, Berman, Arrau, Cziffra, Callas. These are just a few of the legendary artists that Jacques Leiser has worked with in his remarkable career. 

As an agent, impresario, and photographer, he played no small part in the successful careers of many of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. As a confidant, advisor, and tireless advocate, there is no doubt that his personal influence on these artists extended well beyond the traditional agent-client relationship. 

The great pianist Lazar Berman writes of Leiser in his autobiography:1

Unfortunately it was not granted to me to work with Hurok, nonetheless fate brought me together with a wonderful agent named Jacques Leiser. To be honest, it was he who came to me in Moscow with a contract for me to sign, and who organized interviews and appearances on popular TV programs in America and in other countries. 

He accompanied me everywhere, was present at all negotiations and planning sessions for recordings, and at first class concert engagements everywhere in the world he was always present. Jacques knew music, understood in the greatest detail all the shadings of a performance and of the musical life, and did everything to organize my success in America and the rest of the world. He worked only for soloists like Richter or Benedetti Michelangeli, and dedicated himself to each of them in a most personal manner. He knew exactly where it would be good for a particular performer to appear, and he was always in a position to give good advice regarding a program. He always attended the concerts of his artists, and he had time for each of them. For me, Jacques Leiser was and remains a unique personality in the world of music management in the second half of the last century. After him I never again met an agent on his level. 

A career among such musical legends brings countless stories, insights, and reflections from the world of the concert artist. Jacques Leiser has recently completed his memoirs, and they will be valuable reading for pianists everywhere. Clavier Companion is pleased to publish excerpts from these memoirs. The following article details some of Leiser's experiences with the great pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli; in our September/October issue we will publish excerpts from Leiser's work with Sviatoslav Richter. 


Jacques Leiser with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in Italy, in the 1960's. © Jacques Leiser

Throughout my career as an international concert manager, when I related stories and anecdotes about my clients, colleagues would urge me to write my memoirs. At the time I didn't give it much thought. Now, however, in my eighties, at this late stage in life, I feel the time is right to share my experiences, in particular those that provide insight into the personalities of legendary artists and reveal them as human beings with frailties as well as genius. 

As I review these experiences, I am continually reminded how times have changed. My career developed in the second half of the twentieth century, a time when the music world was somewhat less commercial. We live in a different era today, and business is no longer conducted in the same manner. Perhaps these memoirs might illustrate how things used to be. 

Like General Leiser, who did his small part to help promote Chopin's career during the nineteenth century, I worked (rather harder and for longer than my Saxon namesake) to promote the careers of promising young artists during the twentieth century. I enjoyed my work. It was fulfilling to discover artists and help them develop their careers. Often I was able to do this simply by being in the right place at the right time. If I felt a significant debut was imminent, I tried to be there; often I flew to Europe simply on a hunch to discover or sign promising artists. Sometimes I was the first—and only— one there, which frequently enabled me to succeed. Timing was everything. 

Timing. To be there with Maria Callas at La Scala before she began to sing on an international scale, to seek out Sviatoslav Richter before he had a career in the West. Had the timing been wrong, these experiences would not have been possible. But it was by no means only a matter or timing. There were also other elements—namely passion, good musical intuition, and the willingness to take risks—all of which proved helpful and played a vital role in the development of my own career. Luck also played a part. 

The list of musicians who have crossed my path (or rather, I crossed their paths) is long, including many of the greatest pianists of last century. The three pianists with whom I was most closely involved were Michelangeli, Richter, and Berman (all legends of the keyboard), and I have therefore devoted more space to them in my memoirs. Others I knew less well, but my memories of them are an important part of the world I lived in. During my career, I often had a camera by my side, and I had the good fortune to be able to photograph many of the musicians I dealt with. Some of these photographs have been exhibited, notably at the Louvre in 1998, as well as at various museums in the United States and Europe, cultural institutions, and music festivals. Others have never been published before now, and it was a pleasure to include some of them in my memoirs. What I did not have at my side, unfortunately, was a diary, the lack of which I now regret enormously. It simply never occurred to me at the time that some day I would need to refer to dates and details. So I must ask for understanding if some of the dates I offer are vague or possibly wrong. I have found the Internet to be a valuable source of dates—of notable debuts and reviews, for instance—but I freely acknowledge that it is not to be relied on for accuracy. What I do promise, however, is that I have set down my memories as faithfully as possible. If my memoirs have any interest or significance, it is because of the musicians who were involved: men and women of extraordinary talent with whom I was privileged to deal during my career. 

Michelangeli in Paris 

In November of 1964, I received a telephone call from Bernard Gavoty, the music critic of Le Figaro, one of France's most important newspapers. Gavoty.also hosted Les Grands Interprètes (The Great Interpreters), a well-known television program viewed by every French music lover.

Gavoty asked the pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli to be his guest on the December program; this way, word about his re-emergence would quickly spread. (Michelangeli had not played in Paris for many years, and his return would be a major event.) Gavoty invited him to be interviewed on the program and play about thirty minutes of music. It was all very exciting. The terms were a sticking point, as they often were: "We don't have any money. We'll pay him $200, and he'll have to fly to Paris." I felt the only way I could persuade Michelangeli to accept a measly $200 would be to make a very convincing case, so I presented it very carefully: "This will open all the doors and create a demand for you. I know it's a sacrifice—and the fee is ridiculous." To my great relief, the Maestro accepted. 

And so, in December of 1964, he was engaged to play on French television: two Scarlatti sonatas, in C Minor and C Major; two Chopin mazurkas, in G# Minor and B Minor; and selections from Debussy's Images, Book 1, "Hommage à Rameau" and "Reflets dans l'eau." This was to be my first professional encounter with Michelangeli on foreign turf. Alas, Michelangeli's December trip to Paris proved to be a harrowing experience for me. 

I had arranged a major international publicity campaign and a series of interviews during his brief stay in Paris: The New York Times, High Fidelity magazine, Le Figaro Littérraire, L'Express, Time magazine, Der Spiegel, and so forth. Times have changed so much; today this would be a major achievement. I told Michelangeli he needed the interviews to make the trip worthwhile, rather than just coming for the television program. 

Michelangeli on a flight from Tokyo to Rome, 1965. © Jacques Leiser

A Conflict

He arrived at Orly airport a couple of days before the broadcast. I made reservations at the Hotel Plaza Athénée next to Le Théâtre du Champs Elysées and met him at the airport. Unfortunately, I found myself with a major conflict that very day. Richter happened to be playing in a gala at the Paris Opera that same evening, and I felt I had to attend. It was the very concerto that Michelangeli would be playing in a few months, the Grieg. This was sheer coincidence. 

The problems began at the airport. "Leiser," Michelangeli said, "Why don't you and I go out for dinner tonight?" I replied, as gently as I could, "Maestro, I would love to. But could we have a rather late supper, is that possible? You probably want to rest anyway and I have a commitment to attend a concert." "A concert? What concert?" growled Michelangeli. I couldn't avoid telling him, "Maestro, Sviatoslav Richter is playing at the Paris Opera tonight with the conductor Lorin Maazel. I really have to go; he's expecting me." 

Michelangeli already knew of my professional and friendly relationship with Richter. To my surprise, the Maestro—who hardly ever went to hear other pianists—made only a slight protest and then expressed interest in joining me at the Paris Opera concert. Because Richter was playing and it was a gala event, the house was sold out; however, I had obtained two tickets in advance for such an emergency. "Va bene," he said, "We'll go to the concert." 

I was enthusiastic; it seemed like a good photo opportunity if I could get Michelangeli to go backstage after the concert to meet Richter, who admired him greatly. I suggested, "Maybe you can meet Richter after the concert," but the Maestro remained silent. Proceeding with my plans, I told a friend who was a news photographer from Holland, "They've never met before. If I can get them together, it should be a historic occasion. Could you be there just in case? However, I can't guarantee it." 

I duly met Michelangeli at his hotel and we went to the Paris Opera, entered the large foyer, and picked up the tickets. I sensed people around us were murmuring and staring as if Camille Saint- Saëns himself had walked into the Paris Opera. They pointed discreetly in our direction, saying, "My God, could that be Michelangeli?" Although our presence at the Richter concert was sheer coincidence, it was assumed I had arranged for both great pianists to play the Grieg Piano Concerto within a period of two months to create excitement in Paris. I'll never forget that evening. 

We went to the Soviet concert agency Gosconcert loge (I still had my Richter/Russian connections at the time). The Gosconcert director was there; he knew me and also Michelangeli, who had played in Russia on one of his very rare tours that year and had been an enormous success. The director greeted Michelangeli warmly, saying, "Oh Maestro, what a pleasure to see you!" 

We were seated at the back of the loge; six important Russian dignitaries were seated in front of us. When Richter began the concerto, Michelangeli began stamping his foot, grunting, and making indiscreet noises. I thought that any minute someone would turn around and tell him to be quiet. There was a prolonged ovation after Richter finished the concerto; Richter then returned and played the last movement again with the orchestra. This was too much for Michelangeli—he jumped up and said in a loud voice, "Basta!" and walked out. I followed him and, God, was he in a bad mood! And to think I had promised Richter I'd bring Michelangeli to the concert and backstage. 

I noticed a coffee bar in the Opera and suggested, "Why don't we have an espresso?" He agreed, reluctantly, and we had coffee, but he still wanted to leave the theater. I said, "Maestro, we really must go backstage to see Richter. It will take just a few minutes. He's waiting to see you, in fact he's dying to meet you." Michelangeli's only response was "Non ho niente da dire." (I have nothing to say to him.) I persevered, "You don't have to say anything. Just shake his hand, you know, because he knows you're here and I promised him I'd bring you back. He would be disappointed not to meet you." 

In the end, I persuaded Michelangeli not to leave. We waited until the end of the encore then went backstage. The guard there said, "Richter is not receiving anybody." I replied, "Well, he is expecting us," but the guard insisted, "It doesn't matter; he's not receiving." What a nightmare. Here I was with Michelangeli behind me. Fortunately, at that moment I saw Lorin Maazel's former wife, whom I knew. She was on her way backstage, and I joined her—with Michelangeli sandwiched in between— as we slipped past the door guards.

A (not-so-cordial) meeting

Richter and Michelangeli meeting backstage at the Paris Opera, 1964. © Jacques Leiser

We arrived at Richter's dressing room. I remember it well: the door opened and there was Richter. Richter was exuberant; when he saw Michelangeli, he smiled broadly and extended his hand. He was so moved, so friendly, but Michelangeli just stood there in cold silence, like the statue in Don Giovanni. Fortunately, the photographer was there, and I still have the picture—the first photograph ever taken of them together. Remarkably, the photographer captured the one fleeting moment when Michelangeli smiled briefly! 

Richter joyfully said, "I've heard so much about you all my life. I couldn't hear your concert in Moscow because I was away on tour, I wanted so badly to hear you; I understand your playing was just extraordinary." Michelangeli remained unmoved. Neither pianist spoke the other's language, so I was translating Richter's German and Michelangeli's Italian. The meeting seemed to last forever. 

Richter was so enthusiastic that he didn't seem to notice Michelangeli's demeanor. Possibly he thought Michelangeli was extremely reserved. Michelangeli, of course, was furious, but he did keep his mouth shut, which was a relief for me, since he was capable of saying very cruel things. At that point my main concern was to get away before anything unpleasant happened, so we excused ourselves, claiming another engagement, and left. 

A difficult interview

Press interviews were held both in December and during Michelangeli's legendary return to Paris the following month. When I organized these interviews, I also functioned as his interpreter. He was not a willing subject. When a Time magazine interviewer asked him who were his favorite pianists, after a prolonged silence he replied, "Sono tutti morti." (They're all dead.) The press interviews had a tremendous impact, and when Michelangeli eventually played on Gavoty's popular television program, the viewers were glued to their sets. 

Michelangeli played magnificently, but the interview was difficult, as Michelangeli took an immediate dislike to Gavoty. In those days, television performers had to wear considerable makeup, and Gavoty had powder all over his face. Just before the broadcast, when the makeup people came to Michelangeli, he sent them flying, saying in Italian, "I'm not a clown like our interviewer." When Gavoty asked, "What did he say?" I replied, "I didn't understand." During the program, Gavoty badgered him with questions. "Why haven't you played in France? Why haven't you been here for so long?" Michelangeli's response was curt, "I wasn't invited." He thought the questions were stupid, and some of them were. Gavoty asked him, for instance, "You're considered perhaps the greatest pianist of our time. Do you feel as though you are?" This was embarrassing for Michelangeli. Nevertheless, he then went to the piano and played Scarlatti, Chopin, and Debussy magnificently; it was the talk of Paris, and his forthcoming concert at the Théâtre Champs Elysées quickly sold out. 

A legendary return

Michelangeli's Paris concert in January of 1965 was not simply a concert, it was an event still remembered and discussed today. For many music lovers, his return to Paris after an absence of many years was a rediscovery; in addition, an entire generation had never heard him so there was considerable excitement. People were desperate to hear him. They stole tickets and even tried to sneak backstage pretending to be an orchestra member—and this was only the beginning of the madness. According to Time magazine, an observer at the Paris concert commented that there were more pianists per square foot in the hall that evening than had ever been assembled before. 

His performance of the Grieg Concerto was absolutely stunning. He took a completely different approach from Richter, of course, but equally valid. He was in magnificent form. The Liszt Totentanz came at the end of the program. I will never forget that performance as long as I live. Unfortunately, handheld cassette recorders were not available then, and Radio France didn't record it, so nothing is left to us today. 

The performance was absolutely hair-raising, summoning up visions of Paganini himself playing the violin or Liszt at the piano. The sound, the technique, the virtuosity were demonic and electrifying. I was overwhelmed. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. The audience went crazy, people stood on their seats and screamed; it was reminiscent of the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (although at that time, of course, the audience was protesting against the music). The Maestro took an unprecedented twenty curtain calls—the people backstage kept pushing him out— and, of course, he refused to play an encore. The audience simply would not leave. Michelangeli was in his element. 

While the cheering continued, I rushed backstage. The scene was chaotic, with people from the music profession milling about, Michelangeli continuing to take curtain calls, scores of people from the audience trooping backstage to see him, and important pianists coming to pay homage. People shook my hand and congratulated me for bringing him back to Paris—friends as well as recording-industry personnel. I joked and said, "Don't squeeze my hand too tightly—all those octaves!" They kept congratulating me, saying, "You're the one who brought him back!" and shaking my hand again. 

M. Huot (the manager who engaged Michelangeli for his first concert in Paris) could scarcely comprehend what was happening, or the pandemonium. He came over to me and asked, "Would the Maestro be available November 13 and 15 for the opening concert of our season? We'd like to have him play here. Does he have the time?" My entire calendar was open; I had no dates planned. However, I couldn't resist saying, "I'll have to check." Then he added, "Oh, by the way, we'll double his fee!" I didn't even have to ask! 

Things were now unfolding the way I had predicted to Michelangeli's wife. We were off to a rousing start. Michelangeli recognized this and was pleased, as indeed he should have been. Characteristically, he mentioned hardly anything about this historic and unique triumph to Giuliana when he returned to Italy. He seldom spoke about his performances, and when he did, he often said they "could have been better." This was his typical attitude, a reflection of his natural modesty. 

I began receiving telegrams and letters from many of the organizations I had previously contacted, and was able to proceed with firm arrangements for performances with Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, the Salzburg Festival, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and Carnegie Hall. Ronald Wilford of Columbia Artists Management (CAMI) also contacted me to help organize Micheangeli's American appearances. I was dazed suddenly to find myself the world representative for one of the greatest living pianists. My enthusiasm and passion were such that I did not even consider this "work." I was determined to overcome any obstacles in my way. As it turned out, there were many—including those created by the Maestro, who was rightly considered to be one of the world's most difficult and demanding artists. I worked like a demon, feeling I was suddenly confronted with the challenge of my life. It was suspense, Hitchcock style, all the way. 

Jacques Leiser, 2010. © Jacques Leiser


1 From The Years of Peregrination: Reveries of a Pianist, by Lazar Berman. Published posthumously in 2006; translated from the original German. 

Memoirs of an Impresario, by Jacques Leiser, will be published later this spring as an e-book, and it will be available on This personal account of Leiser's experiences with legendary musicians spans more than seventy years; in addition to detailed accounts of his close work with Berman, Michelangeli, and Richter, it also includes discussion of artists including Arrau, Callas, Casals, Cortot, Cziffra, Horowitz, Pollini, Sokolov, Zimerman, and many, many more. The inclusion of Leiser's personal photographs, the feature of a Louvre exhibit, provide a visual account of historical significance. The book is dedicated to Alan Walker and includes a foreword by Ted Libbey. 

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