National News

Charles Hamlen, Classical Music Manager With a Cause, Dies at 75

Posted August 2, 2018 12:45 a.m. EDT

Charles Hamlen, who co-founded one of classical music’s leading management agencies, helped build the careers of young stars, including violinist Joshua Bell, and then left the business to raise money to help people with AIDS, died Wednesday at his home in New York City. He was 75.

His death was announced by a close friend, David Landay. The cause was leukemia, he said.

Hamlen’s rise to the zenith of the classical music world — as a co-founder of IMG Artists, which represented many of the biggest stars in the field — was improbable, as he was the first to admit.

He was a high school French teacher and playing piano on the side when he moved to New York in 1977 to try to make it as an artists’ manager. He founded a small firm with Edna Landau and began building a roster of musicians and winning the respect of the industry — even as he and Landau struggled, often having to borrow, to make ends meet.

“It was seat of my pants, eleventh-hour crises,” Hamlen recalled years later, on a panel at Oberlin College. “Somehow, magically, something would always happen.”

He developed a reputation as a talent spotter who could forge good, open relationships with both artists and presenters. Bell recalled that soon after he made his debut, at 14, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Hamlen visited and persuaded him — and his parents — to sign with his firm, which was still quite small in those days.

“He kind of assured them that he wasn’t a money-hungry manager trying to exploit a young person,” Bell said in a telephone interview. He said that early on Hamlen had taken pains not to push him to play too much too soon, and would sometimes encourage him to take less lucrative chamber music gigs — with smaller fees, and smaller commissions — because he believed they would help him develop.

“The fact that I’m still in the business now, after many years, without having burned out — I think a lot of that has to do with him,” Bell said.

But with a small, not-very-well-known roster, the firm never seemed to have enough money to grow, Landau said in an interview. It began looking for investors.

Lightning struck in 1984, when the firm was acquired by the International Management Group, a sports agency behemoth looking to expand into the performing arts. It was the classical music equivalent of a small startup being bought by Google. The firm was renamed IMG Artists, and the company was ultimately able to get out of debt, open offices around the world and attract an ever-starrier roster. They were soon going toe to toe with the biggest agencies of the day, including Columbia Artists Management and ICM Artists Ltd.

IMG made headlines in 1986 when violinist Itzhak Perlman left ICM to joint it. Later, Hamlen flew to Moscow to meet the dazzling young pianist Evgeny Kissin, signed him on and arranged his New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall debuts in 1990; both became major events.

Over the years Hamlen personally managed — or “looked after,” in the genteel phrase preferred by the industry — flutist James Galway; pianists Stephen Hough, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and André Watts, in addition to Kissin; and, besides Bell, violinists like Leila Josefowicz. More stars flocked to IMG as it grew.

But within a few years a personal tragedy, the death of his partner from AIDS in 1988, set him on a new path. As many of his friends became sick in those years, he reassessed his life.

“I remember thinking then that, as well as I do artist management, others do it as well and better,” Hamlen told The New York Times. “But I was the only one who could be there for my friends. How this might connect to my professional life in music I didn’t see at first.”

He soon found a way. In 1993 he left IMG, which was then booming, and founded Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS, a charity that went on to stage benefit concerts that raised millions for AIDS groups. He put his Rolodex to work. Dozens of gala-worthy headliners lent their talents, starting with the artists he had personally managed and growing to include Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Cecilia Bartoli, Van Cliburn and Renée Fleming.

Charles Ewing Hamlen was born July 9, 1943, in Schenectady, New York, the youngest of four children. His father, Richard, worked at General Electric and his mother, Caroline, was a librarian. He studied piano and cello as a child, graduated from Harvard College, where he majored in French language and literature, in 1965, and started out as a high school French teacher. A marriage in 1969 ended in divorce; he said it was later he understood that he was gay.

Music was never far from his life, even when he was teaching French. In summers he coached piano and chamber music at Kinhaven in Weston, Vermont, and at one point started a chamber music series. In the 1970s he was the piano accompanist for mezzo-soprano Hilda Harris.

He is survived by two sisters, Ann Goldsmith, a poet, and Katherine Reed, as well as nieces and nephews. Hamlen led Classical Action for 16 years, sometimes raising money with intimate concerts in private homes with some of classical music’s biggest stars. He cut overhead costs by merging with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, his original inspiration for the group.

Then Hamlen started a new act in music in 2009, when he returned to IMG Artists to try to right the ship after Barrett Wissman, a businessman who had bought a controlling interest in the firm in 2003, pleaded guilty to securities fraud in an investigation into corruption at the New York state pension fund. Hamlen stayed for three years.

When he left, he became artistic adviser to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York.

While he took great pride in the money he had raised to address the AIDS crisis, Hamlen recalled that it had not been easy to walk away from the successful business he had helped build.

“I remember grappling with the possibility of changing my life and taking this on,” he said. “One moment you think, What a great thing; the next you think, You are out of your mind.”