IT’S NOT ALL SONG AND DANCE
-Maxim Gershunoff and Leon Van Dyke
By Lawrence Budmen
For over half a century Maxim Gershunoff has been a central figure in artist management and international cultural relations. For many years an associate of the legendary impresario Sol Hurok, Gershunoff was dubbed “the crown prince of the Hurok office” by the great Polish violinist Henryk Szerynk. He has played a pivotal role in developing the careers of many young artists. For the past fifteen years Gershunoff has lived in Ft. Lauderdale and is a frequent presence at concerts in the tri-county area.
“It’s Not All Song and Dance” is an endearing memoir of a life in the performing arts. A musician by training, the Russian born Gershunoff played trumpet in ensembles under the baton of such legendary maestros as Toscanini, Reiner, Bernstein, and Hollywood magnet Werner Jansen. The Hollywood connection led him to managing film composer Franz Waxman’s annual music festival in Los Angeles.
Most importantly, Gershunoff paints a vivid picture of an era when music and dance were vital to American diplomacy. Hurok Concerts was the principal managerial arm of America’s cultural exchange program. Gershunoff was frequently sent to Russia to arrange American tours for Russian musicians, singers, and dance companies. He also became a vital go between with the Soviet government in promoting visits to Russia by American artists. Incredibly the Hurok firm often performed this vital function at a financial loss.
Gershunoff presents a moving portrait of the deprivations of Soviet life. On tour in New York, Russian dancers used most of their spending money to buy items that were unavailable in Russia. There are surprising vignettes. Ballerina Maya Plisetskaya was romantically pursued by Robert Kennedy and Warren Beatty. Actress Natalie Wood (whose parents were Russian) displayed great financial and personal generosity toward visiting Russian artists.
Gershunoff peppers his book with portraits of fascinating and eccentric characters. The emotionally unstable pianist and actor Oscar Levant, overbearing conductor Eugene Ormandy, and violinist and power broker Isaac Stern all come under Gershunoff’s critical microscope. His intense dislike for dancer-choreographer Valery Panov is vividly etched. Gershunoff feels Panov did not deal honestly with him and misrepresented himself as a political dissident. The saga of the tremendously gifted pianist Youri Egorov, who succumbed to a drug habit and early death, is told with deep poignancy. One of the book’s most powerful moments is Gershunoff’s description of a festive party President Kennedy threw for the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Here was cultural diplomacy at its most potent.
In 1987 Gershunoff arranged for Van Cliburn to play at the White House for President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev. This marked the end of an era – the last time the arts would be an effective tool to bring nations and leaders together. Maxim Gershunoff was at the forefront of that era and he fervently continues to believe that the arts are a vital force to make the world a better place. His memoir is a lively portrait of a unique artistic milieu and idealism in the face of political and cultural repression.