‘The most powerful man in classical music’

‘The most powerful man in classical music’


norman lebrecht

June 25, 2015

My tribute to Ronald Wilford appears today in the Spectator magazine:

When Margaret Thatcher imagined perfect power, she thought of the orchestral conductor. ‘She envied me,’ said Herbert von Karajan, ‘that people always did what I requested.’ Power, however, is a mirage that fades as you get close. What Mrs Thatcher saw were the trappings, never the essence. Great conductors might get the glory, but someone else pulled the strings. Behind every power there is a greater force. Behind every conductor, there was Ronald Wilford.

Read the full article here.

WILFORD , Ronald  portrait Head of CAMI .

No obituary of Wilford, who died almost two weeks ago, has appeared anywhere outside of the New York Times, whose culture department he once controlled.





  • Larry Tucker says:

    Dear Norman,
    It’s amazing how many people feel that Ronald used his “power” with conductors to book his soloists, and how wrong they all are. Ronald was ruthless to the benefit of his artists, but he was also one of the more moral and ethical people in the business. (I know you will dispute this). Having worked for and with him for 21 years, none of us (all of the managers, associates and assistants) were not permitted to speak to conductors about artists if they were in the building. What people perhaps overlook is he had a talent for signing great conductors. He also had a talent for signing great artists who didn’t need that kind of help. They were talented and would have had a career no matter who managed them. It’s that Ronald Wilford believed that careers had to be organic. You couldn’t gimmick them up, and that’s how he trained us. Yes, he was a great teacher and mentor also. We should be praising how he ran the company for so many years, instead of finding flaws fit for soap operas, He had many sides to him, and could get angry. What great man can’t? We need more like him in the business. Visionaries…..

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Dear Larry
      I certainly won’t disagree with your last sentiment. As for ethical, he taught me the meaning of ‘fiduciary duty’.
      best, Norman

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:

      Although never managed by the Wilford division, I have to agree with Larry. Looking back at the many friends who had careers managed and coordinated logistically by Mr. Wilford, had a stronghold in the industry. They became known rather quickly, and just by having his name behind them, was a guaranteed endorsement of their talents. It was a different era, well before social media made it easier for many to meet each other in the online world. The internet has, in some way, broken down a wall which let the tigers out of the cage. But during the time when pop music and new forms of ‘rock, hip hop etc’ began to take over the young audiences in concert, and, eventually handheld devices and downloads, the old world efforts of hard working dedicated agent/managers like Ronald Wilford held on to their strengths to keep classical music and dance, theatre etc alive before it got vacuumed out of existence. In line with Mr. Tucker, we need to remember the good things these people did to keep classical music alive. There will always be stories good and bad about all of us, but it is necessary to remember people who tried hard to keep art forms alive in the best manner possible.

  • enemigopublico says:

    José Antonio Abreu

  • william osborne says:

    In 1997, when the VPO was facing massive international protest due to its exclusion of women, Ronald Wilford flew to Vienna and told them that if they continued that policy, he would no longer be able to represent them for their US tours.

  • Larry Tucker says:

    Case in point. Thank you William. He always said what was on his mind.

  • Novagerio says:

    A powerful champion indeed! Clever, ruthless, loyal to those who were loyal to him and ultimately competent. Agents with his nose for talent (for not saying “ear”) are basically extinguished today. In many ways, his empire crumbled with the death of Karajan. There are not many Oldtimers out there with Wilford’s flair, perhaps only a few classical-music-brokers.
    A good thing however is that there is a generation of conductors out there who now can be endorsed by the orchestra’s and not only the most potential agencies!

  • Chris Wilford says:

    He never changed his name. His father changed his name upon settling in the U.S. as was common at the time. I wouldn’t normally bother to chime in but the error is slightly misleading and factually incorrect.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you, Chris, for the correction. I will post it in the body of the piece.
      And condolences for your loss.

  • Peter says:

    It’s a good article except that nowadays it’s not the musicians who pick their music director. It’s the orchestra management. The only exception I know of being the Berliner Philharmoniker.

    • Halldor says:

      In the US maybe. In the UK, in most of the non-BBC symphony orchestras at any rate, the choice of music director lies first and foremost with the players.

  • PDQ.BACH says:

    Dear Norman,

    Thank you for a fitting obituary to Ronald Wilford.

    The very minor agency I occasionally worked for, some time in the last century, unwittingly crossed some CAMI lines, attracting Mr. Wilford’s formidable wrath, and very nearly came to terminal grief. As you write, he generated “shock and awe.”

    The most problematic, and in my view damaging, part of his legacy will remain the scale of conductors’ wages. I thought it frankly immoral back then; we’re to see it as increasingly unsustainable, and damaging to the underlying fabric of whatever remains of urban musical life.

    One very minor nit-pick: you write, in your Spectator piece, that Karajan was half-Greek on his father’s side. That’s a considerable contraction of the timeline: his great-great-grandfather Georgios Karajánnis was attested in Vienna by 1767. (Other sources antedate the Karajan family business in Austria as far back as 1748, founded by ancestor Stefanos Karagiannis.)
    ‘Greek’ is also a somewhat debatable term: Roumelia under Ottoman rule, the home province of the Karajánnis family, was a hodgepodge of Greek, Macedonian, Thracian, Aromonian and other ethnicities. Many genealogies are blurred; some have been retouched to fit national sensitivities in the age of exacerbated identities.

  • Musicmatters says:

    Vision & power he had, no question. Yet he didn’t pay his staff well, nor did he cultivate some of the truly fine managerial talents that worked for him. Many talented managers ended up leaving CAMI because Wilford simply didn’t pay them enough to stay – and a number of them were irreplaceable. Wilford’s attitude was that if you want to leave CAMI, someone else will gladly take your job. It never occurred to him to pay more to keep someone who was good at their job; he readily replaced them – often with mediocrity.

  • urania says:

    He was a very powerful person with many facets. Certainly there was much interest in classical music but also in power. I met him twice. First time I presented a project which he thought worthwhile but which did not fit into his plans. He was quite witty and he had these magic objects from Egypt on his desk. I felt that during our talk he tried to somehow put a strange kind of energy upon me. I felt like paralyzed but could keep my head clear, real strange, kind of hypnotism. It was like a little fight between us and when I did not get confused he gave me a big smile. Some friends who did like him a lot, told me about his more friendly aspects. He made me come a second time to his office, I wondered why, this meeting was just for a few minutes. Anyhow I do think that he was an interesting person 🙂 !

    Wherever his soul might linger, I do wish him well!

  • Michael B. says:

    Ars gratia pecuniae.

  • Baron T-Z says:

    CAMI had a criminal atmosphere that encouraged deceitful and dishonest, unethical practices by its agents and even some artists. How you can hail this disgusting oligarch as something great is beyond me. You simply must not know very much about music in America. Such force is innately destructive, and he used it to serve his own ends, not artistic ends. At least CAMI is no longer what it was. Such people deserve to disappear into oblivion. Good riddance!
    And good riddance to Gunther Schuller, too, another fraud.