Build a network. Find people to work with, and find people whose judgment you trust — sometimes a friend who tells you an uncomfortable truth is worth more than someone who praises you.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in live performance and music, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sonia Simmenauer, founder of the “Impresariat Simmenauer”, a classical concert agency based in Berlin.
Sonia Simmenauer has been called one of the top management CEOs moving the world’s classical concert industry. She started out as a young employee in one of Germany’s major concert agencies where she worked with the finest string quartets of the time. She soon realized that string quartets are something special, and, therefore, need special treatment. So she founded her own agency, with big names on board like the Guarneri Quartet and Alban Berg Quartet. Today, the “Impresariat Simmenauer” works with some of the most exciting string quartets, but also with world famous soloists such as Gidon Kremer, and many others. Sonia Simmenauer’s book, “Two Violins, One Viola, a Cello and Me” is now available in English (www.harcamlowpress.co.uk).
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in the US, but I grew up in a suburb of Paris. My father was a children’s doctor. His grandfather — my great-grandfather — had been a lawyer and a patron of the arts in Hamburg, Germany, and his father ran a photopaper factory. They all had to flee from their home town in 1938 because of the Nazi persecutions. My father was a great amateur cellist. String quartet music was an important part of my childhood, and so was the encounter with many musicians who had been expelled from Germany like my father, who came to visit us.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and did some internships at several classical concert agencies. I guess that was a way of keeping in touch with the specific musical culture of my own family. After graduating, I went to Hamburg — as it were, back to where my father came from — to join my first husband, a cellist. I started working as an employee with Konzertdirektion Schmid, at that time already one of the major concert agencies in classical music. My title, by the way, was “Sachbearbeiterin”, literally “someone who works on things” which you might translate as a “clerk”. Everything was, obviously, very well organized, but I increasingly became aware that the string quartets I worked for need different treatment than, say, solo pianists.
A string quartet is a group of four musicians, who, on a tour, carry between them two violins, a viola, and a cello — on top of more or less heavy suitcases. For the cello alone you need an additional seat on the plane, and you mostly end up with a second taxi for the group. But it’s not only the logistics that are more difficult. As an agent, you have to take care of the individual needs of four people instead of only one person. And don’t assume that things are less complicated because they are a group of friends: they aren’t. These are four ambitious artists working together under the same pressure as every individual artist. For every classical musician, achieving what is called an interpretation is a big challenge, but if it’s four people who have to come to terms with each other, the challenge is much bigger. Democracy doesn’t count in music — you can’t vote on how to play a particular piece by Mozart. But how do you do it, without a boss, or a conductor, who calls the shots?
With all this in mind, I realized at some point that the string quartets I worked with — really big names in the classical business of that time, like the Guarneri Quartet from the US, and Europe’s leading Alban Berg Quartet — required a different form of service from their agency. So, in 1989, after some five years with Konzertdirektion Schmid, I decided to start my own agency. I wanted to make it clear that my agency was special, that we did things in a different way. So I called it “Impresariat”, after the traditional title of an artist’s agent, impresario.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are many people, of course. Most important, in the beginnings of my Impresariat, were the string quartets who trusted me so much that they decided to join my agency. I knew that my way of managing string quartets had to be different from what I’d learned as an employed agent. And I knew in which ways it had to be different. But I still had to prove that I was able to do it. Starting up your own business requires not only the necessary hands-on skills. It requires entrepreneurship which you learn only when you’re doing it. I consider myself extremely lucky that the quartets who started with me were wonderful artists — I can really say that I had learned with the best ones. And they were reliable and straightforward business partners.
I think one must never forget that string quartet music is something very, very special. Those classical composers that wrote string quartets quite often chose that genre to express their most intimate feelings, or to venture on the most daring experiments. For many musicians, professionals as well as amateurs, playing string quartets is the pinnacle. There’s a lot at stake for the musicians — Raphaël Merlin, the cellist of the Quatuor Ébène, compared a string quartet to a pressure cooker. I am extremely grateful to the quartets of my beginning time that they helped me to learn about their work and their passion.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many! Funny ones like the one about the violinist who was so forgetful that he left concert gear in a hotel — the next concert organizer sewed her (rather larger) late husband’s tails onto him while he was playing violin in the warm-up rehearsal. Or dramatic ones like the story of the Artemis Quartet that almost broke apart when the viola player took his own life and the cellist discovered that he had cancer. The quartet regrouped twice and recovered only to end its activities finally during the pandemic.
I’ve written down many of those stories in my book. So maybe I should tell you another one that is not in my book.
My agency, at that time based in Hamburg, was going pretty well when I heard that the local printer with whom we worked was retiring from his business. His workshop was located in the Grindelhof area which, as it happened, was where my father’s school, the Talmud Thora School, was — he was forced to go after there all other schools were forbidden for Jews. I pricked up my ears when my printer told me he was giving up his business, and that I could rent the building.
I decided to open a Jewish café in the old printer’s workshop. Not an easy task because of the special regulations that Germany has for hospitality businesses — but it was exactly because of those problems that a lot of people in the council and in the cultural “scene” got involved. For me, the café was more than just an adventure. For the first time I felt that I didn’t have to feel guilty for working and living as a Jew in Germany. And there was something else I learned. After two years of running two businesses at the same time, I realized that I had to make a choice. My agency mattered so much to me that I had to give up the café — it was my son who took over. And I moved from Hamburg to Berlin to make sure I would stay away from the café. The café remains and is thriving.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The story of my most important mistake is this. During my time with Konzertdirektion Schmid, one of my tasks was designing the quartet’s tour schedules, with train travels, hotel reservations and so on. One day, I sent one of those schedules to Günter Pichler from the Alban Berg Quartet, and he almost lost it with me. It was not a viable schedule. But instead of complaining to me, Günter Pichler asked my boss to allow me to go on tour with his quartet. It was no more than three days or so, but I returned completely exhausted. My schedule was just too tightly packed, it left no space for rests, let alone for the unpredictabilities: taxis that are unavailable when you need them, or train platforms that take five more minutes to walk — with suitcases and music instruments! Concert hall janitors that gruffly point their fingers in the vague direction where the green rooms are. A set of four vintage chairs on the stage that look as if they belong to Downton Abbey but are completely useless for the musicians. My three days with the Alban Berg Quartet were a kind of crash course that helped me learn that, to be able to be creative and perform, artists, and string quartets in particular, need space to breathe.
What are the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I’ve handed the agency over to my son (the same one who ten years earlier had taken over the café), and I’ve started a new project. It’s called Zukunfts.Music (“Zukunft” means future). For young musicians at the beginning of their solo career, finding an agency is a challenge. Many classical agencies are hesitant to take young talent on board — for an agency, it usually takes two to three years of investment before a young talent starts paying off. Zukunfts.Music aims at supporting young talent and at bridging those crucial two or three years. We help young musicians to get fit for the market, develop their talents, and learn skills to promote themselves.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
Talent, in some ways, is something you have or have not. But your career depends on other things, too. I think it is important for young musicians to realize that your profile as a soloist or as an ensemble musician is not simply given by your talent. Talent does not give you anything but an obligation to take good care of it. Building a career requires patience and skills you probably didn’t learn when you studied playing your instrument.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Keep the passion for the music.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Live Performances”?
- Work hard, become an excellent musician.
- Be yourself. Don’t try to emulate your heroes or to fit into a scheme you find promising.
- Whether you’re entering a competition or you’re auditioning for a post in an orchestra: be aware that the people who are judging you want to be convinced by a musician, not an AI-controlled device playing an instrument.
- Buckle down and learn the nitty-gritty stuff. You’ve got to be your own manager, at least for a while, so get on top of all the legal, organizational and managerial questions that are relevant to your career.
- Build a network. Find people to work with, and find people whose judgment you trust — sometimes a friend who tells you an uncomfortable truth is worth more than someone who praises you.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Listen to the others and learn and live empathy. Learn to make a good soup, so you can always welcome someone knocking at the door.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I once quoted a fee to a presenter and he accepted it so quickly that I thought I had asked for too little. I then wrote to him to confirm the fee and added some costs on top. His reaction was cool but clear, and I was ashamed. I never forgot this. A deal is a deal!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!