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Classical 101

Ronald Wilford, Classical Music's Top Player, Dies

Ronald A. Wilford

Ronald A. Wilford, the President and CEO of Columbia Artists Management (CAMI), died on Saturday at  the age of 87.

  In his heyday, Wilford controlled classical music throughout the United States, Europe and South America. A Greek Orthodox from Utah, Wilford was president of what was, for many years, the world's leading classical music booking agency, marketing team, think tank and police state. For years, no conductor of consequence appeared with any orchestra or opera company of consequence that Wilford did not approve or at least condone. Orchestra managers and impresarios crossed him at their peril. Wilford was charged with thee careers of Karajan, Levine, Muti, Solti, Ozawa, Blomstedt and Tilson Thomas. To name a few.

Ronald Wilford's reach is chronicled in Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth. You gotta love Norman. He's the Jacqueline Susann, okay the Fifty Shades of Gray,  of Classical music journalism. Lebrecht posits that Wilford's demands for high and higher fees for his clients is driving the business under. So Wilford cares about his clients and his own profit margin more than, "the business". Good for him. He was a business man, not a curator.

I never met Ronald Wilford. I saw him once, at the CAMI offices when I was visiting a friend. From a distance he looked like any other executive. He was speaking to a colleague subordinate, I don't think he had colleagues in what seemed an affable enough manner. Whatever aura of power he was said to have was not on display, from a distance.

Roland Wilford almost never gave interviews. He was seldom photographed. He had no entourage. Presumably he was loved by his clients, but by "The Business, " not so much. Columbia Artists, as far as I'm aware, is a publicly held company responsible to stockholders.

In his heyday, Wilford must have made investors happy. Had he been president of a bank  he would have been considered an under-compensated hero. Because he favored commerce over art; his reviews were mixed.

Columbia Artists has long ceased to be the powerhouse of the past. The conductor roster today is pretty meager. Karajan and Solti are dead. Muti has moved elsewhere. Ozawa is in poor health. The few recognizable names left are Daniele Gatti and Herbert Blomstedt. 

One of the few cracks in the Wilford armory happened in 1994 when not even he could prevent Kathleen Battle being fired-publicly, on page 1 of the New York Times-by Joseph Volpe of the Metropolitan Opera. Conductor James Levine, then as now the artistic heart of the Met, Battle's benefactor and a Wilford protege, did not intervene. The iconic Columbia Artists building opposite Carnegie Hall was vacated several years ago. Today the company has a floor in an office building around the corner. Budding artists are no longer willing to cede total control. Great artists don't need to.

That said, Wilford remained the top player for many years. I doubt he cared about being loved.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.