"Mostly great good fortune"
Interview with Tobias Haberl

The Künstlersekretariat am Gasteig is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in this season.  Can you still remember how everything began?

Elisabeth Ehlers: Yes of course.  In the early 1980s Lothar Schacke  and I were working at the Wylach Konzertdirektion in Wuppertal, but at some point the time came for a change. 

Lothar Schacke: Just a moment, we have to begin a few years earlier.  At the end of the 1970s I used to sing together with your mother in the choir and after rehearsals she always used to give me a lift home.  On one occasion I told her that I was studying architecture but that I would much rather be a church musician.  She responded by saying that I definitely ought to get to know you because you were absolutely crazy about classical music and that you were working in an artist agency. 

Ehlers: And then we met and went to a concert together.  The Staatskapelle Dresden was playing under Herbert Blomstedt.  We had no idea at the time that ten years later we would be his agents.  

Schacke: Then on 1 September 1979 I began to work for the Wylach Konzertdirektion.  What you told me about your work there appealed to me, and also it was gradually becoming clear to me that I was not good enough to be a professional church musician. 

Ehlers: Your first really major job was to accompany a tour by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra which at the time was conducted by Eugen Jochum.  

Schacke: That’s right.  Jochum was really dependent on others, and so I drove him and his wife Maria in a Mercedes from city to city.  It was ‘love at first sight’.  We simply got on very well together.  He worshipped Bach, I too; his son-in-law was professor of town planning in Harvard, and I had also studied town planning.  After the tour he asked me if I could imagine being his permanent travel companion.  And that’s what I did.  Of course I was a bit worried that in the concert branch I might become branded as Jochum’s porter, but looking back it was exactly the right step to make because through him I got to know very many interesting and influential people in the music business.

Ehlers: It was a fantastic time.  Every other evening we went to a marvellous concert: Kempff, Menuhin, Milstein.  We worked hard, we were passionately enthusiastic, but at some point we realized that it was not enough, we wanted to do more.  We wanted to be our own bosses. 

Schacke: So I phoned Jochum and asked him, “Mr Jochum, do you still want me?” And he replied, “If you move to Munich tomorrow, I’ll appoint you the day after tomorrow as my manager.”  Not long after that he was indeed the first artist to be represented by our newly founded agency.

Ehlers: Soon afterwards we also took on Gerhart Hetzel.  At the time he was one of the leaders of the Vienna Philharmonic.  He was a very special person, a great artist who in the first months and years always gave us great encouragement.  Unfortunately he died twenty-two years ago in a tragic accident.  Irwin Gage helped to bring us more and more singers, for instance Lucia Popp, Brigitte Fassbaender, René Kollo and in particular Arleen Auger. 

How much of a risk for you was it to set up your own business?

Schacke: Of course it was risky.  We had no money, no security and Jochum was already over 80 years old.

Ehlers: Nevertheless, we were full of energy and moved into a house on the Rosenheimer Platz – Lothar Schacke into a small apartment, I moved into a slightly larger apartment on the same floor.  We set up one of the rooms as an office. 

Schacke: We bought everything from bankruptcy assets: two desks, two chairs, two roll-fronted cabinets but the typewriters….

Ehlers: …we bought from Olivetti in Frankfurt, on the way from Wuppertal to Munich.  And guess who loaded them into the car? Alexander Pereira. At the time he was head of the Olivetti agency there.  They were really up-to-date machines with a modern display. They were all the rage in those days. 

Verena Vetter, you came to the agency a little later.  When did you hear the name Künstlersekretariat Gasteig for the first time?

Verena Vetter: It must have been at the beginning of the 90s.  In those days I used to sing in various ensembles and wanted to gain some work experience in an artist management office.  So I asked someone who was familiar with the branch and was given a list with four numbers.  I dialled the first and who answered the phone? Elisabeth Ehlers.  I was lucky, a young assistant didn’t yet know that she shouldn’t put through that sort of call straight to the director.

Ehlers: I can still remember how you asked me if we needed an assistant and I said, ‘Sorry, we don’t need anybody.’

Vetter: But an hour later you called back.  You said, “Mrs Vetter, we do need you after all, my assistant has tendonitis in both arms.”  So I started and have been with the agency ever since.  I’ve been the third share-holder now for three years. 

Over the past thirty years was there ever a difficult phase which gave you sleepless nights?

Schacke: Actually I can’t really remember. 

Ehlers: You are such a happy soul.  Every now and again I used to ask myself how things would continue and how we would be able to carry on after Jochum’s time.  He died in 1987. 

Schacke: But not long afterwards Herbert Blomstedt called and put the question whether we could represent him.  He had heard about how well the collaboration with Eugen Jochum had worked.  At the time he was on his first European tour with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and we met in Munich in the Holiday Inn.  On the very same evening we agreed that we would take on his general management.  HB, as we call him, is now 87 years old and still in much better shape than some of his young conductor colleagues. 

Ehlers: He was very similar to Jochum as regards his ethical approach and his attitude to music and the profession.

Do you think that there is a special type of artist who finds your agency attractive or who is attractive for your agency?

Vetter: It’s rather like the relationship between the master and his dog.  They have to go together well.  The artists we represent are all in some way fairly similar.  Concert organizers often tell me how pleasant our artists are, how friendly and personal.

Ehlers: Somehow or other they are indeed all rather similar: Frank Peter Zimmerman, formerly Tabea Zimmermann or Bella Davidovich,  Christian Gerhaher or Herbert Blomstedt.  They are not too keen on glamour and don’t have to perform any acrobatic acts when they sing or play the violin.

Vetter: What they all have in common is an incredible concentration on the substance.  Nowadays it’s increasingly difficult to find that, but there are such people still, and there are also the audiences and the organizers who appreciate this intensity and seriousness.

What must an artist be like to suit you?

Schacke: I couldn’t work for anyone to whom I feel no personal closeness.  Of course it’s important to keep a professional distance but I have a friendly relationship with all my artists.  Trust is the top priority.

How has the classical market changed since 1984 and how has your work responded to this change?

Schacke: Oh dear, I can still remember how long I opposed the use of computers.

Ehlers:  I can still remember how I secretly bought a dog and in the morning I said to you, “Lothar, look in your office, something is waiting for you.” And you got terribly worked up because you were sure that it would be a computer, but then it was this dog and you were really pleased about it.

Vetter: The decisive changes actually came later, the Internet, emails, Napster, Twitter, Facebook, that turned everything upside down.

Schacke:  That’s right.  In the beginning we spent most of our time on the telephone, in the meantime I get about 150 emails a day.  I read the first at 6.30 in the morning and the last at midnight, there’s no let-up any more. 

Vetter: But we have to accept that the Internet and the social networks are here to stay, and so we have to make the best of it otherwise we’d fall by the wayside. 

Schacke: I know, but it has all become so much more complicated, more time-consuming and more strenuous. In those days there were by far not so many public relations agencies as there are nowadays. 

Vetter:  We are very lucky to have a fantastic public relations officer in our agency. That was really a good investment because we are able to offer our artists the right king of packages.

How much do you have to understand music, also as regards questions of technique and interpretation to be able to be a good agent?

Ehlers: You certainly have to be passionately enthusiastic.  Each one of us has turned their hobby into their profession.  For instance, I play the cello.  I would never have the confidence to be able to judge each concert from a musicological point of view, but over the years I have developed a very good ear for knowing what is good and what is only mediocre. 

Schacke: My mother went to the Conservatory and wanted me to learn to play the piano as a young boy.  Unfortunately after four years I still could not play any Mozart sonatas and so she withdrew her financial support for the piano lessons.  Later on I played the organ, became a member of the church choir and took over from the priest the organization of a small concert series. In those days I did everything myself, the posters, the press releases, the sheet music, but my father sat at the box office and he also made the recordings.  Perhaps that was when I first experienced a sense of enjoyment in organizing concerts. 

Vetter: I always used to sing; I took singing lessons and every now and again I discuss technical matters with the singers.  And as an agent if you have good knowledge of the repertoire, you have an advantage over the other agencies.  A concert organizer remembers if he or she has been given a good recommendation or an idea. 

How do you divide up your work? Are important questions decided democratically?

Vetter: The spheres overlap because our conductors also work with our singers. 

Schacke: That’s right, we don’t beat about the bush.  Some of our artists come in part not because of the agency but because they would like to be taken care of by a certain person. And when someone new comes along, then of course we discuss with each other and make a joint decision whether or not it is a good idea to take on this person or that person, or whether perhaps a situation of rivalry might arise between one artist and another whom we already represent.  It was always important for us not to become too big.  If an agency has 50 or 60 conductors, it’s like working in a shunting yard, but we don’t want to do that sort of thing.  Obviously we have to have a few more singers.

Ehlers: One has to remain ‘up to date’ and balance things out between the established and the new artists.  In this way one stays in business and every so often can still cause surprises among the organizers. 

Schacke: It’s also very important to really get to know these young people.  You have to experience them in concert and be convinced about what kind of impact they have on audiences and whether they work together well or not so well with an orchestra.  But if you are always out and about, all the more office work is left undone and so it’s important to find a happy medium.  

Ehlers: For instance, not so long ago I accompanied one of our young singers to New York where she made her debut in the Armory Hall.  Three recitals in six days.  I was at the first two concerts and the first was rather difficult, but the second was then a huge success.  A trip like that takes time but it also brings invaluable and important experience which we can then use in our work. 

As an agent do you have to offer consolation sometimes after a concert?

Ehlers: I do not criticize, that only causes more insecurity, but one can exchange expert opinions and offer encouragement.  My colleague Verena Vetter is absolutely great in this respect.  You do that really well.

Vetter: Thank you. I’m glad about that. 

Schacke: I would not want to explain to a violinist how he ought to play simply because I myself never learned to play the violin.  But every so often I do dare to say some things to the singers. 

Vetter: Yes, I know what you mean.  There is always the philosophy of not talking to the artists about technical questions. 

Ehlers: If a concert does not go quite as one hoped, one has to try and have a calming effect and take the kettle off the boil. 

Which concert, which encounter, which experience from the last decades will always remain in your memory?

Ehlers: I can still clearly remember when Bernstein conducted Mozart’s Mass C minor in the Herkulessaal.  This was shortly before his death, at the beginning of the 1990s. The hall was chock-a-block full, Arleen Auger was singing the famous Et incarnatus est, when the maestro suddenly stepped down from the rostrum and took her in his arms and simply did not let go.

Vetter: In the middle of the piece?

Ehlers: In the middle of the piece.  And not just for a few seconds, it seemed like half an eternity.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Then he simply stepped back onto the rostrum and continued.  When I think about it, it still sends shivers down my back.  It was a really glorious concert. 

Schacke: I was incredibly impressed when I was with Matthias Goerne in New York, and he sang Die Winterreise accompanied by Alfred Brendel in the Carnegie Hall.  The evening before, at a small party held by his American agent we got to know the director of the Morgan Library. The next day he invited us to go and look at the original scores of Winterreise and Schwanengesang.  And on the following day we sat wearing white cotton gloves in the reading room of this library and spent two hours leafing through the manuscripts.  It was a very moving experience. 

Vetter: For me it is a very specific concert with Christian Gerhaher.  We are his first agency and I worked with him and for him right from the beginning.  I’ll never forget the moment when I really grasped that he has much more than an exceptional voice.  It was in 2006 when, for the first time, he sang Schumann’s Scenes from Faust in the Stephaniensaal in Graz.  In the aria of Doktor Marianus when he sang “Hier ist die Aussicht frei” I thought to myself, oh my goodness, how is it possible for a human being to sing so wonderfully? I became aware of my own responsibility as an agent for this voice, and I resolved there and then to make sure that I would carry this voice to the best of my ability through the ups and downs of the music business.

How many concerts do you attend in a year?

Schacke: I have never counted them.

Ehlers: On average at least one a week.  But you have to remember that means each one of us! Besides that we have a fantastic staff of eight assistants at the moment who help us and they know a lot about music and also attend concerts.

Schacke: It’s probably between fifty and seventy a year. 

Do your artists know each other well?

Vetter: The singers know each other well and they also get on well with each other. 

Schacke: And of course the conductors know our singers, and some of them know the instrumentalists.  Blomstedt for instance knows almost all of them.  We also always try to bring younger artists together with the big names. 

Ehlers: Not long ago Christian Gerhaher heard Frank Peter Zimmermann for the first time.

Vetter: Yes, together with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Cologne.  Christian said it was a revelation.

How do you see the future of classical music? With optimism or anxiety?

Schacke: It can definitely be said that the looks of an artist are becoming increasingly important.  And if you don’t look good, then you have to be a little eccentric.  Anyone who is not pretty or handsome and also is perhaps a little reserved has a hard time and falls by the wayside, even if he or she is really good. 

Vetter: I personally consider it difficult when everyone is always talking about a crisis in classical music.  This kind of thing can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Even in the past it was always true to say that from a certain age people became interested in classical music.  You only have to look at audiences in the Bavarian State Opera or in concerts by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra – you can see a lot of young people there. 

Ehlers: So I think we can carry on for a little longer.

Schacke: But competition is increasing.  Agencies are popping up like mushrooms and launching more and more careers which in some cases are over after three years.  You have to fight against this and the only way to do so is with quality and continuity.  Every day is a new challenge, and this is hard work and sometimes also enervating, but it’s mostly a great good fortune and huge privilege to be able to do the work we do.