Nailing the impresario, missing the man

April 05, 1994|By Richard Dyer | Richard Dyer,Boston Globe

In his day, Sol Hurok was almost as celebrated as the great artists he presented -- Anna Pavlova, Fyodor Chaliapin, Marian Anderson, Jan Peerce, the Ballets Russes, Isaac Stern, Van Cliburn, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and the Royal Ballet. ,, "S. Hurok Presents" was a brand name associated with blue-chip quality. In 1952 there was even a Hollywood film biography, in Technicolor, of course, "Tonight We Sing," featuring generations Hurok artists -- Tamara Toumanova appeared as Pavlova.

The Hurok empire lasted only a short time after Hurok's death in 1974; his last big "attraction" was the tragic world tour of Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano. Hurok's name could be bought, and some Boston businessmen did buy it, but money couldn't ensure the unswerving loyalty of his artists -- and the instinct that led to signing up those artists in the first place.

In another sense, however, the Hurok legacy does linger. He did play a major role in creating and sustaining the myth of the musical or dance superstar who is above or apart from all competitors -- a matter of chemistry with the audience and resourceful management and careful publicity rather than of skill or art.

Hurok did more than anyone else to build an audience for dance in America, but he played virtually no role in the evolution of dance history. He had very uneasy relations with the creative spirits of his age -- Balanchine, Martha Graham, Agnes De Mille; he belonged to the history of performance, not to the history of art. The spirit of Hurok lives on in such ventures as the "Three Tenors" and PBS' "Great Performances."

"The Last Impresario" is the first full-scale biography of Hurok, and it makes a useful corrective to Hurok's own volumes of autobiography, which do not traffic in accuracy.

Author Harlow Robinson has done a lot of homework, and when facts can be known, he gets them mostly right -- exhaustingly so, when it comes to sorting out the Russian ballet rivalries of the 1930s. Mr. Robinson, a biographer of Prokofiev, is also very good at tracing Hurok's adroit footwork with Soviet cultural officials and how his fortunes could fluctuate in Moscow and in New York as the political exchange rate for cooperation changed.

Hurok the man, however, does elude Mr. Robinson, although bits of Hurok's fractured-English personality serve him as amusing chapter titles ("Slipping Beauty to the Rescue"). Hurok was a complicated character, and no one really knew him very well, even his daughter. Even with his daughter's cooperation, Mr. Robinson cannot bring us very close.

Hurok was a peasant from Ukraine who moved in an aristocratic, artistic world that both condescended to him and needed him. Although he was personally obsessed by elegance, refinement and good taste -- and idealized his ballerinas, especially Pavlova and Fonteyn -- he was himself a hard-nosed businessman, whose methods were not particularly refined.

With an artist who was in "good taste," like Anderson, he responded in kind, building her career with exemplary and unobtrusive showmanship. But he wasn't above more vulgar kinds of exploitation; he was in business to make money. "When people don't want to come," he would say, "nothing will stop them."

Hurok's instinct for performers is something Mr. Robinson cannot explain -- if he could, he'd be an impresario himself. He is perceptive enough about today's musical scene to understand how it would be better off if more performers followed Hurok's advice about building careers slowly and not pricing themselves out of the market. "Fees have now become so prohibitively high (Isaac Stern now receives $45,000 for a single performance) that they effectively block entrance into the booking circuit for younger, lesser-known artists. . . ."

Mr. Robinson writes in a breezy and sometimes careless fashion that would not have won Hurok's approval. Efrem Zimbalist was a very serious artist; it is unlikely that even at 17, "he tossed off the Brahms Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic." In describing "Tonight We Sing," Mr. Robinson says, "A triumphant scene from 'Faust,' with Chaliapin (played by Ezio Pinza) in the title role, follows" -- which compounds errors, because Mephistopheles, Chaliapin's untitled role, is not triumphant during the final trio.

Hurok was smart enough to surround himself with people who could attend to the kind of necessary detail that didn't interest him personally but the importance of which he recognized; writers and publishers don't think of such things. What would have delighted Hurok would be the title role; he couldn't do anything worth looking at, but he loved the limelight and knew where to shine it.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok"

Author: Harlow Robinson

Publisher: Viking

0$ Length, price: 521 pages, $26.95

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