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Starker's Article "That Room at the Top"

The following article originally appeared in the December 1962 issue of "Mademoiselle."

Not long ago I told a famous musician and his manager a joke that I had recently heard. It was received with a short silence that ended in forced laughter. This is the story: Do you know the history of an international concert star in six brief acts? No? Well, Nemo is a great violinist, Blunt is a manager. Blunt Speaks:

Act I. Nemo? Who's he?

Act II: Nemo? Oh, yes. He's good of course, but you know how difficult it is.

Act III: I must have Nemo. I don't care how, but I must have him.

Act IV: You know, I must have someone like Nemo.

Act V: I must have someone like Nemo when he was young.

Act VI: Nemo? Who's he?

Not a particularly funny joke, perhaps, and especially unfunny to someone who, like my distinguished friend, is in the middle of Act III. But does it say something uncomfortably true? Nothing is as pat as all that, but this brief history does afford a rough perspective of what artists go through, women as well as men, though few ever get beyond Act II. What I myself have to say about the subject can hardly lift the veil of mystery from the face of success; it is mere educated guesswork. But perhaps that is the best anyone can offer.

Before the curtain rises on Act I of the great performer's history, there has been a long, arduous preparation; for even to be on the verge of a concert career is a triumph of talent and dedicated hard work. Nobody ever asks a manager if he has heard of someone named Nemo unless he believes that the young unknown is a potential concert artist.

To have this potential means that young Nemo has put in years of practice, beginning from about the age of six. His father probably loved the fiddle and wanted his son to be the great concert artist he never had a chance to be. Luckily the son had real gifts to begin with. After school he went home for a music lesson or to practice while the other boys played baseball. After high school he entered a conservatory, immersing himself deeper and deeper in the technique and literature of his instrument, practicing six to eight hours a day. He received pedagogical encouragement and has played at recitals for young performers. Perhaps he has garnered a medal or two from competitions. But what matters most is something without which all his talent, training, and experience amount to no more than the equipment of a music teacher; an obstinate, obsessive determination to be great.

His next step is a debut. If he has already won a competition, there is a good chance that he may have been given one. If not, the first manager he is introduced to will suggest that he have a debut, and Act I of the history is underway. New York is the best place to make a debut, though to fail there is to have failed at the top. From a New York failure he can go nowhere, except perhaps Europe, from which artists do sometimes return to make the grade at home.

The greatest obstacle to the debut is its cost. When Nemo makes the grade, he will be paid handsomely for the concerts he plays; but in the beginning it is likely to be he who foots the bills -- or his friends and relatives.

Nemo tries to work up an interesting program, preferably including something little-known and something he has played well before. He goes on stage before an audience of the people who have invested in him, plus a few strangers who have managed to get free tickets, and perhaps even a second-string critic or two, if there are no major musical events scheduled for the same evening.

The aftermath is far less predictable than the concert itself. Even though there may be warm applause and a cheerful party afterward, if this performance hasn't quite measured up to critical standards, this moment of his life may be memorialized by a mere line or two in the newspapers and a small mountain of debts. At this point the no-longer-so-potential concert artist must decide either to get a job with a musical group and try again in a few years, or to give up his precarious hopes of concertizing and go into teaching or some other musical field not involving solo performances, such as managing other musicians or working on the staff of a record company. The hard realities of earning a living leaves little time or energy for making a second attempt. And so the history often ends with Act I, Scene 1. But if the debut has been a fair success in the eyes of managers and critics, Act I will proceed apace.

A contract is the next step, and at this point it seems to Nemo that the way to the top is now smooth and sure. But the manager, Mr. Blunt, who offers it, puts it dryly enough: "Let's hope this will be mutually beneficial. We'll do our best. We want our percentage, after all." (The manager's percentage is normally 20 percent for recitals, 10 percent for television and radio appearances.) In any case, from now on Blunt is in charge.

The Blunts -- of whom a surprising number are women -- have a difficult job. They must engage and sell artists to audiences who may never have known that they wanted to hear a violinist, much less a cellist or an oboist. To do their job well managers need neither know nor like music. However, managers who care about music do much to raise musical standards by sending first-rate artists into communities where there has never been much demand for excellence. There are managers who care so little about the music itself that they may arrange engagements by checking the ethnic make-up of a community in order to determine whether a Pole or an Italian will go down better.

Not only do the attitudes of a managers vary enormously, so do their activities. A manager may have under exclusive contract a small list of artists whom he sells to orchestras, local concert managers (who sponsor a concert series in their city), colleges, and universities. He may be the representative of a particular orchestra who buys artists to play with it. He may be one of a dozen managers in a large agency, each representing several artists, having behind him the resources of a powerful company to help in promoting clients. Blunt's problem with his new client Nemo, then, is to sell him to somebody, and he is going to have quite a job. However, every town has its small but sufficiently influential group of dedicated music lovers who can exert enough pressure to bring concert series to their local halls and auditoriums. Who are they? Committee women, the board of directors of the local orchestra, conductors, managers. These interested people are constantly listening, reading newspapers, following new recordings, talking shop with friends, making plans for future seasons.

Small as Nemo's chances seem at the outset, all this curiosity and appetite for new talent favors him. He also has on his side the tendency of musicians to be generous about plugging one another. Experienced artists are constantly solicited for their opinions and are glad to suggest promising younger or lesser-known players -- even people who play the same instruments -- because it all helps the cause of good music, and ultimately their own careers. The judgment of a colleague is valued for its objectivity; such promotion is probably the strongest factor in making possible the transition from Act I to Act II. Before the world at large can recognize Nemo's quality, his peers must do so.

In planning a season, what a local manager needs above all is three or four stars, for a season can be hung on them, with the rank and file filling the gaps between. A famous name costs far more than an excellent unknown, but without stars it is impossible to secure the steady subscription audience necessary for any concert series.

But how does Nemo get to be a star? While he is still in Act I, simmering with unrecognized promise, the wheels start turning. An out-of-town orchestra is planning its next season and wants as many stars as possible. Perhaps two are in the bag. The third is "unavailable." Someone murmurs the name of Nemo -- "a young violinist I heard the other day. Sounds just like so-and-so years ago." Here Blunt may come into the picture, too. He is handling Star No. 1, whom the planning committee has been counting on, and suggests that he may present a little difficulty. In his next breath he happens to mention his brilliant young client, Nemo. It is clear to the committee that to include Nemo in the next season is a form of insurance. So he is engaged. This kind of thing happens again and again. Nemo is not quite sought out, but he is taken on. After it has happened a few hundred times, Act II has begun.

In one scene of Act II the bravos are loud but the reviews bad; in another, good reviews, but a tepid reception -- though Nemo is convinced that his performances are basically the same. His colleagues argue over his interpretation of this, criticize his handling of that, but generally agree that he's on his way up. In spite of this, his fees remain low (in Act I he may have been paid from one hundred fifty to five hundred dollars a concert; in Act II the fees rise to something between five hundred and fifteen hundred dollars, depending on how long he has been around and how seasoned a concert artist he is), while his expenses -- accompanist, manager, publicity, travel -- are tremendous. After all the expenses of the season are paid, the musician is left with about 30 percent of the total take; though pianists, who do without accompanists, get as much as half. So although a top star with high fees can get by on as few as twenty to thirty concerts a year, others may play two or three a week to make ends meet and they must supplement these earnings by teaching or by playing first chair in a symphony orchestra.

Years pass. It goes on as before -- an exhausting shuttle from city to city, country to country, practicing in hotel rooms; in some place a star, in others, a perpetual debutant. Nevertheless, Nemo is good and getting better. His private life is haphazard, but as an artist he is now one of the select few, and Act III is at hand ("I must have Nemo, I don't care how").

How is this? What is he doing that makes him succeed while others who play equally as well remain forever in Act II? Every star of the musical scene -- the players in Act II -- must have certain accomplishments: an exceptional ear, excellent fingers, perfect coordination physically and mentally, a first-rate memory, a studious mind, curiosity, diligence, the ability and willpower to work with total concentration. He has, of course, spent years and years practicing; he has studied everything of musical importance: other instruments, composition, the history of music.

What more has Nemo, who finally becomes an international concert star? It's difficult to say. He plays faultlessly, of course, but in addition has imagination and a sense of color. He strives for construction and balance in a musical work. His tone has warmth and beauty. He sets a high standard for himself and often plays above it, never below. But it isn't this either. Other artists of the first magnitude who never quite emerge from Act II have these qualities and never become true international stars. Yet without them the world of music would be nothing. They are the carriers of tradition; they create and sustain standards; they provide the climate in which the handful of immortals may have their being.

But what, then, does make the difference? The great star has personality, a charismatic presence, whether or not everyone likes it. He is nervous before concerts, but once on stage he feels completely at ease. The audience believes in him and watches him lovingly, noting his expressions, his gestures.

Not only that; he is absolutely steady. He must have definite ideas about the course his career is to follow, step by step; and along this seemingly endless plateau he moves unhesitatingly. He refuses to be exhausted or put down by the sheer dreary grind. If he suffers a setback -- gets an occasional bad notice, or finds that a conductor doesn't like him, or that his instrument is not popular everywhere -- he shakes it off quickly. Bad luck only makes him work harder.

This determination provides him with an air of authority, and perhaps it is in this aura that the ultimate secret of his stardom lies. Opinions of his playing may differ; one critic will say his tempi are too rapid, another the reverse. Some will consider his left hand fabulous, his right so-so. Some say his Bach is superb; others that he is the finest exponent of the romantics. But that he isitthey agree.

(Qualities of personality occasionally carry an artist into the third act of his musical career even though he lacks a few of the basic prerequisites of technique, musicality, and intelligence. A well-mixed combination of aura, politics, press-agentry, connections, and showmanship can make a star. But the act will be brief, and it will be the last act. Nobody will ever say afterward: "I must have someone like Nemo.")

Because Nemo is the star of our six-act history of a great musical artist, we must assume he has a happy balance of all the qualities essential to true greatness. As time goes on, he finds that more offers than he can possibly accept come from all over the world. His movements have to be planned years in advance. Managerial letters have changed their tone: they offer baits: Nemo exercises his prerogative to cancel, alter, choose at will. His consent to play somewhere stirs up excitement.

But time passes, the air mileage rolls into the hundreds of thousands, and Nemo is growing tired. Taxes are so high that he decides to play less and for much higher fees. Fewer budgets can afford him. He spends more time making records and collecting royalties than playing concerts. His name is legend. He and his playing represent a school -- the Nemo sound, the Nemo approach. Criticism can no longer hurt him. He is the measure of all things and, in a sense, only Nemo is qualified to judge Nemo. His basic artistic goals and ideals may be incomprehensible to most of his admirers, but it doesn't matter. He is one of a half dozen instrumentalists in the world who can fill any concert hall.

And so Nemo and his peers, a handful out of a whole generation of musicians, pass on into Act IV (I must have someone like Nemo"). The managers begin to look for artists who can substitute for the great international star, since he can't begin to satisfy the demand for his concerts. A new elite is rising, new Blunt's take charge of them. Nemo's authority is unchallenged, but his physical abilities and musical discipline have begun to show signs of attrition. For awhile he is forgiven small falterings and blurrings, since all the magnificence of his artistic concept is still present. But the young have discovered concepts of their own, standards of their own, Nemo's of their own. Someone as good as Nemo was when he was young finally appears, and for Nemo himself the penultimate act begins--"I must have someone like Nemo used to be when he was young."

Years later, the last act of all is played. An old conductor and a young Blunt are discussing violinists and their varying interpretations of standard violin repertory. The conductor reflects on the different tempi he has heard used in the scherzo of the "Kreutzer" Sonata. He sighs and his face lights up: "Nemo -- no one ever played that movement as he did." The young Blunt frowns and says, "Nemo? Who's he?"

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