My friend Paul Myers, formerly chief producer at CBS and Decca, has shared with me (and let me share with you) his reminiscence of how the diminutive and retiring Alicia de Larrocha shot to an unlikely American fame.
Step back into the 1960s, when America could be lit up overnight by a classical talent, and pin back your eyelids for Paul’s first-hand account (I wish he’d told me this for my book on the record industry). Here goes:
I was very pleased to read your piece about Alicia. It might amuse you to learn that I was partly responsible for her American ‘re-discovery’ in the 1960′s.
I was working for Columbia Records, and found myself both head of Epic Classics and its marketing director. This was no great achievement. I was producer of George Szell, who wouldn’t talk to John McClure (the Director of Masterworks), and nobody in Epic, which was run as a separate company within Columbia, was interested in classical music.
Epic had two contract artists: Szell/Cleveland (signed to Epic so that he didn’t clash with Bruno Walter on Columbia), and the Juilliard Quartet (to avoid a clash with the Budapest). I added a few more artists – Judith Raskin and the harpsichordist Igor Kipnis – and the rest of my releases were made up of imports from Europe: a contract with Supraphon for Czech artists, with Harmonia Mundi for Jean-Pierre Rampal and finally, with Hispavox for Alicia de
Larrocha, whom I had admired from about the same time as you.
The reason for the long preamble is that I had befriended a man working for a PR agency (not his own) called Herbert Breslin. He and I used to exchange records by (our own) ‘discoveries’. He sent me Janet Baker’s first recording, and I sent him the first of Alicia’s Epic recordings. He was thrilled by her playing, and wanted to know more about her. I remember suggesting that he should persuade Ron Wilford [of CAMI] to get her some bookings, but that he could be her personal representative in the US.
That’s what happened. Ron placed her with Chicago under Martinon. She also played New York with an all-Spanish recital on the same night that Gilels played an all-Beethoven recital at Carnegie Hall – and still got a full house. In those days, I had a weekly radio program on WQXR. I also took her on a tour of the local stations – WBAI, WNCN, WRVR, WQXR – translating their questions into French (I didn’t speak Spanish) and translating her replies back to English. Nearly all the interviewers asked the same: “Why haven’t you been here for twelve years?” and got the same reply: “Because nobody asked me!”
Anyway, Alicia became a very big hit. Herbert Breslin represented her (she was his first) and, soon after, Pavarotti came along, he opened his agency and became the monster PR man (in his autobiography, he referred to ‘some guy’ at Columbia who introduced him to Alicia.)
Anyway, the rest is history. I recorded Alicia’s Iberia Suite with her for Decca and, over the years, saw her regularly at Santander. She was a great artist, and might never have been ‘rediscovered’ if an ambitious young producer at Epic had not been trying to promote some imported records!
Maybe. I think she was so good that she would have been rediscovered anyway. I’m just glad I helped.