For the nearly three decades that I lived in Manhattan, beginning in 1983, access to the great and the good of the classical-music world (never mind the not-so-good) was seldom a challenge for me. First as editor for the performing arts at Connoisseur magazine and then as an independent contributor to a list of publications starting with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, and Smithsonian, I was well placed to spread the word about their projects and passions.
Yet a handful held aloof. One was the reclusive superstar maestro Carlos Kleiber, who sent his regrets came in the form of a cordial, hand-written postcard I still treasure. Another was Ronald Wilford, of Columbia Artists Management International. Known to some within the business as the Silver Fox, Wilford more or less monopolized the top tier of the world's conductors, reaping a reputed fortune in the process. On the rare occasions when a mutual acquaintance made introductions at a concert hall or opera house, Wilford would shake my hand crisply, nod, and vanish.
But in October or November 2009, my phone rang and there he was, wishing to consult me on a personal matter. He reminded me how publicity-shy he had always been. But his wife Sara (a granddaughter of president Franklin D. Roosevelt) was after him to make sure that when his bell tolled, the New York Times would publish a worthy account of his life and achievements. Could he hire me to prepare such a text?
Our conversation lasted maybe five minutes. I replied that to the best of my knowledge the prospects for an authorized, unsolicited obituary at the Times would be less than zero. Ronald, as he then instructed me to call him, thanked me and asked that I send him an invoice for the consultation. When I said there would be no charge, he invited me to lunch at his regular corner table at Marea, on Central Park South.
In the course of our leisurely conversation, Ronald asked me my opinion of Luc Bondy's Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, which had opened the season weeks before to near unanimous chorus of disapproval. My view, in a nutshell, was that apart from a few gratuitous, vaguely scandalous flourishes, Bondy had delivered a thoroughly conventional staging in a very ugly box. And what, I wondered, did Ronald have to say?
He told me in exquisite detail, with a rigor and a sensitivity to words, music, and dramatic context that held me spellbound. He spoke with special feeling of the opening of the third act, of the transition from darkness to the glimmerings of first light, of Cavaradossi's reflections while awaiting execution, of the romance and gravity of the moment. Behind the businessman whose toughness was legend, I discovered an aesthete alive to every nuance of the composer's and librettists' creation. I hoped we would have many chances to continue the dialogue, or for me just to learn and listen. That didn't happen, though a generous check for my consultation arrived a few days later by mail.
Though I had no reason to suppose that his health was failing, Ronald has been on my mind of late. And associates of his with whom I shared my story shared stories of their own with me, all illustrating his loyalty, his empathy, and his understanding.
Michael Cooper's respectful obituary in Saturday's Times seems to me to have captured the public Ronald Wilford just as Sara had been hoping. But as far as I can tell, the personal facets he revealed to friends and on rare occasion to a lucky acquaintance remain, as he preferred, off the record. I hope he would not have minded my sharing this glimpse.