Walter Homburger, the shrewd former administrative head of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra who managed the early career of Glenn Gould, died in Toronto on July 25. A source who knows the family said the German-born Canadian had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 95.
“He was the guiding force of my career, and a man of utmost integrity and extraordinary kindness,” said violinist James Ehnes, for whom Mr. Homburger worked as a manager starting in 1992, five years after his retirement from what was then called the Toronto Symphony. “I will never have a greater friend.”
Other artists represented by Mr. Homburger were pianist Louis Lortie, baritone Victor Braun and the singer-actor Jan Rubes. But his most lasting influence was as the TSO’s managing director and an impresario in a city that was not viewed in the middle of the 20th century as a major station on the concert circuit. David Oistrakh, Luciano Pavarotti, Arthur Rubinstein and Joan Sutherland were among the giants he imported, either through the TSO or his own International Artists Concert Agency.
His dual captaincy of these organizations made Mr. Homburger one of the most powerful music executives in North America. Comparisons with Sol Hurok were not entirely fanciful, since Mr. Homburger did in fact consult the New York showman and claimed in a 1964 profile by the arts columnist and broadcaster Clyde Gilmour to have learned a thing or two from Mr. Hurok’s memoirs.
Born on Jan. 22, 1924 in Karlsruhe, Walter Homburger was the scion of an established banking family. He left for England in 1939 a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Like many Jewish refugees viewed paradoxically as enemy aliens, the teenager set sail for Canada in 1940, spending time in three internment camps before volunteering for the armed forces. He was awaiting an overseas posting when the war ended.
Finishing high school in Toronto – and working as a farm labourer in Aurora – Mr. Homburger started studies in accounting but also noticed how concert life in his adopted city differed from what he was accustomed to. Sensing an opportunity, he borrowed money to promote concerts in 1947 by the German soprano Lotte Lehmann in Eaton Auditorium. These were not financially successful, but a piano recital by a certain Vladimir Horowitz was. International Artists Concert Agency was off and running.
On Oct. 20, 1947 Mr. Homburger presented a recital by Mr. Gould, whose parents he had approached the previous year after hearing the 13-year-old play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 at the Kiwanis Festival. Could he manage the boy wonder? “Somehow or other they didn’t have any objections,” Mr. Homburger told the Montreal pianist and musicologist Paul Helmer in 2002.
The relationship was fruitful. Mr. Homburger negotiated the contract with the Columbia Masterworks label that resulted in the landmark 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He also initiated (by writing Lester Pearson, then secretary of state for external affairs) a 1957 tour of six concerts in Moscow and Leningrad at the height of the Cold War. The visit made the unknown Canadian a celebrity in a land of great pianists and soothed Canadian-Soviet relations.
Writing affectionately to Mr. Homburger with the pet salutation “Dear Gomburger,” Mr. Gould often detailed his medical complaints and assured his manager in 1961 that he had cancelled an appearance in Chicago for the third time not because he “felt like it” but because of “a sort of rheumatic thing in my left arm.”
While Mr. Homburger was tolerant of his client’s idiosyncrasies and ran interference for him in social matters – according to Mr. Gould’s biographer Kevin Bazzana, Mr. Homburger once sent flowers to the pianist’s mother on her birthday and signed the card on his behalf – he was essentially in the business of promoting live concerts. Mr. Gould’s retirement from the concert stage in 1964 marked the beginning of the end of their professional association.
“I’m very happy I was wrong,” Mr. Homburger was quoted as saying regarding his prediction that Mr. Gould’s decision would hurt his record sales.
From 1962, Mr. Homburger was preoccupied by another dossier, managing the TSO, an organization that enjoyed a bump in public interest after the engagement in 1965 of the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. When Mr. Ozawa left for San Francisco in 1969, Mr. Homburger arranged for the engagement of a respected and experienced successor, the Czech maestro Karel Ancerl. He was also instrumental in scouting the Englishman Andrew Davis, who in 1975 was at the outset of his career.
Tours were frequent in those days. Among the most enterprising was a visit to Japan and China in 1978. In 1982 the orchestra moved from Massey Hall to Roy Thomson Hall, a change that involved considerable administrative complications, not all of which Mr. Homburger was able to control. Happily, the TSO in that era enjoyed a level of subscriber support that was the envy of the continent. Before the move, Mr. Homburger sold International Artists to the orchestra, in essence ceding the star recital business to Roy Thomson Hall.
While not trained as a musician, Mr. Homburger monitored record sales – keeping an eye out for performers who had been overlooked in New York – and seemed to have insight into who might be a star. One of his catches was Klaus Tennstedt, the charismatic East German conductor, who made his North American debut with the TSO in 1974 and participated in a successful Beethoven festival in 1977.
Mr. Homburger knew most of the major musical figures of his era. Many participated in the Great Gathering benefit concert of March 9, 1987, that marked his farewell to the TSO and raised $2.35-million for the orchestra’s foundation. The marathon in Roy Thomson Hall, televised by the CBC, concluded with a ramped-up performance under Mr. Davis of Johann Strauss II’s Overture to Die Fledermaus. In the orchestra were cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman playing viola, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and – as part of the expanded percussion section – contralto Maureen Forrester, Mr. Ozawa, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and conductors Victor Feldbrill (founder of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra) and Elmer Iseler (of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir).
Respected as he was by musicians and his peers, Mr. Homburger did not always enjoy smooth relations with the press. “It’s time Walter Homburger discovered that the critics are not writing for the performers, but for the readers,” John Kraglund of The Globe and Mail was quoted as saying in response to a critique by Mr. Homburger of the inked-stained set.
Mr. Homburger confessed to Mr. Helmer that he sometimes invented the good notices that appeared in newspaper display advertisements. “If you advertise and say, ‘The greatest pianist since Horowitz,’ and you put it in quotes, and you don’t say where it comes from, who is to know?”
After ceasing his postretirement work as Mr. Ehnes’s manager in 2011, Mr. Homburger continued to attend concerts, often with his wife, Emmy, a supporter of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Named a member of the Order of Canada in 1984, Mr. Homburger was awarded the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals and the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2010.
“He was a brilliant impresario, a strategic leader and a kind inspiration to all who knew him,” the TSO chief executive officer Matthew Loden said in a statement. Sir Andrew Davis added: “The fact that the greatest stars of the classical music firmament appeared regularly (and eagerly) with the orchestra speaks volumes for the respect and affection he commanded.”
Mr. Homburger leaves Emmy, to whom he was married for 58 years; his son, Michael; daughter, Lisa; and four grandchildren.