The death of Sol Hurok almost two years ago left the international concert world searching its ranks for a successor to the master impresario of them all. One of the newest—and most unlikely—challengers is a tiny, iron-willed Japanese-born dynamo named Kazuko Hillyer. After only seven years on the U.S. management scene, she now represents 50 of the world’s more prestigious conductors and soloists, 20 major orchestras including those of Los Angeles and Cleveland, and an eclectic roster of talents from Zubin Mehta to the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.
As Kazuko is the first to admit, it helped to have a husband named Raphael Hillyer, 24 years Kazuko’s senior and violist with the famed Juilliard Quartet. “A year after I came to the U.S. to be a concert pianist I knew I wasn’t good enough, so I married a musician instead,” explains the 36-year-old Kazuko brightly. After their marriage in 1964, the couple trekked the concert route together for three years. “I hated touring,” she says, “but I realized I was good at dealing with performing artists.”
Operating from the authentic teahouse she designed and had built inside their 24th-floor apartment overlooking New York’s Lincoln Center, Kazuko began to book concerts for their musician friends. A year later she launched Kazuko Hillyer, Int. “My English was so poor Raphael had to correct my business letters,” laughs Kazuko today.
A deferential Japanese wife at home, where she often slips into a traditional kimono, Kazuko proved fiercely competitive in scouring the world for talent. An early target was East Germany. “No Western impresario had ever been there,” she recalls. “So one day I simply got on the subway and went to East Berlin. I called up the minister of culture and he wouldn’t talk to me. So I went to his office and banged on the door.” Sure enough, in 1972, the East Berlin String Quartet, under Kazuko’s management, made its first Western appearance in exchange for a tour of the Cleveland String Quartet, also represented by Kazuko.
This past June Kazuko Hillyer startled the music world with her biggest coup to date: the three-week tour of Japan by the Metropolitan Opera. “Kazuko made it work,” says one Met tenor. “There were 300 temperaments, and somehow she made the whole company come together.” A month later, having traveled nonstop 62 hours by plane, train, Jeep and on foot, Kazuko was sipping tea in mountainous Northern India with Tibet’s exiled Dalai Lama. After a week of persuasion, he agreed to allow the Tibetan Folk Theatre, never before seen in the West, to make its current American tour.
In spite of a handpicked staff of eight assistants, Kazuko, whose name means “peace,” acknowledges that her life has little of it. “I often attend as many as four performances a night,” she says. “Being a manager is like being a full-time mother. You have to listen to artists’ personal problems, advise them on what to wear, tell them what to say and not say at parties.
“Lots of things make me cry,” she admits. “I can scream very loud. But I never use a woman’s tears to accomplish anything in business. In the office a woman has to be very neutral. Outside, I am very feminine.”