Lilian has the last laugh

Lilian has the last laugh

For the Times of Israel published February 10 2017

LONDON — She is the grande dame of Anglo-Jewish arts, but at a scarcely believable 90 years old, Lilian Hochhauser is not yet ready to hang up her ballet shoes. She is bringing Russia’s outstanding Mariinsky dance company to London this summer for a three-week long season at the capital’s Covent Garden.

Her husband Victor has retired, though he can be heard “off-stage” reminding her of musicians and artists the couple have brought to grace the London stage in the last half-century.

But the robust Lilian isn’t ready to retire. “As long as I can keep going, and I enjoy it, I will,” she says.

The story of the Hochhausers — the arts impresarios whose productions have taken place under the heading “Victor Hochhauser Presents” — is the remarkable tale of a husband-and-wife duo whose passion for music and dance is matched only by their devotion to Judaism. Wryly, Lilian recalls many miles walked over London on Shabbat when it was necessary to see the artists through some crisis or other.

The aural backdrop to the Hochhausers’ careers has been rich, including some of the greatest musical virtuosi of the 20th century such as David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, and performing alongside them have been ballet stars such as Rudolf Nureyev.

Accompanying the embrace of the artists have been the feral politics of Stalin — who fortunately died early on in the Hochhausers’ professional lives — the KGB and Khrushchev.

The young Lilian Shields met Victor, her life partner, in 1949. He had been born in Czechoslovakia and she was the daughter of Russian immigrants to London’s East End. Their meeting was in the unlikely surroundings of the office of the charismatic rabbi, Dr Solomon Schonfeld, who had rescued hundreds of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Lilian was working as Schonfeld’s secretary and Victor “used to come in, and perch on the corner of my desk.” Both were passionate about arts and music in particular, and when Schonfeld asked Victor to put on a concert featuring the pianist Solomon to raise money for his charitable work, the result was a sold-out event.

The couple married and realised, says Lilian, “that concert promotion was new, virgin territory — no one else was doing it.”

And so their unique partnership began, with Lilian, as she jokes today, “juggling a baby in one arm and a telephone in the other.”

There was never any question, she says, of her not working, though the couple went on to have four children. Incidentally, the Hochhauser children can boast today of having had music lessons from the world’s greatest musicians who wandered through their family home — particularly the cellist Rostropovitch, who lived with the Hochhausers for more than a year after he left the Soviet Union in 1974.

After Stalin died in 1953, a delegation of Soviet musicians came to London. Among the group was the violinist Igor Oistrakh, whom the Hochhausers booked, to great acclaim, for a sold-out concert at London’s Albert Hall. The following year Igor’s violinist father David came to London.

“He [David Oistrakh] had no idiosyncrasies,” Lilian says, adding that “he always played like an angel.”

Oistrakh never gave them aggravation in the way pianist Sviatoslav Richter did.

Richter was notorious for never making up his mind until the last moment as to what he might be ready to play, a huge problem for impresarios trying to tell the audience about the concert programme.

“But in his particular case, of course, people would flock to hear him and we’d have to say ‘programme to be announced just before the concert.’”

Like many of the musicians, Oistrakh became a personal friend, a 20-year-long relationship which lasted until the musician’s death in 1974. “There wasn’t a week went by when we didn’t speak to him,” says Lilian, “and I do believe he was a genius.”

But whenever he came to London, Oistrakh, like all the Russian artists, would be followed by Soviet agents — what Victor Hochhauser used to call “the sputniks” — and Lilian says that the violinist used to feel “especially vulnerable” because of his Judaism.

For 25 years the Hochhausers had a virtual monopoly on presenting Soviet artists and dancers, being the first to bring the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets to Britain. Victor was already fluent in several eastern European languages and slid into Russian very quickly. Lilian set herself the task of learning, though she often managed with German, a useful second language for the artists.

Travel to Moscow in the 1950s and 60s was a huge adventure, Lilian says, though much of it sounds impossible.

Even in the great hotels such as the National and the Metropole, near the Kremlin, “food used to take two hours to arrive,” she says. “You couldn’t get a cup of coffee, there were no cafes… once, we stayed at the Metropole and we were put in what had been Lenin’s suite, with a huge chandelier and a fridge in the middle of the room which had been used by Lenin. It was really exciting.”

She laughs today, but it can’t have been much fun at the time when trying to keep kosher in Russia.

“I never knew what to do about food,” she says, “we couldn’t use the word ‘kosher’ because there were certain words you just couldn’t say in the Soviet Union. So I would say I was a strict vegetarian, and then they would say, well, we have chicken. I used to take a paper bag with me and when no-one was looking I would discreetly shovel the [non-kosher] food into this bag. Once I was too quick, left the room for two minutes and came back to find they were serving me second helpings!”

Though they were careful about what they said about their Judaism and to whom, they were able to speak frankly to their great friend, Rostropovich, who was not Jewish. The cellist, recounts Lilian, was determined to give his friends a kosher meal in his Moscow home.

“So he went to a rabbi, the rabbi slaughtered this chicken, he bought a new pan and a complete set of new dishes and cutlery. And we were very excited, our first kosher meal in Russia!”

Unfortunately, however, Rostropovich had bought a fowl meant for boiling rather than a roasting chicken and when the Hochhausers attempted to cut into lunch “the poor thing didn’t want to give up its limbs — it wasn’t done, not cooked through at all. So that was the end of that attempt to eat kosher in Russia.”

A strange mutually convenient “conspiracy” existed between the Soviet authorities and the Hochhausers throughout those years.
They knew “full well” that the couple was Jewish, says Lilian, “but we never spoke about it. And in those days you had to have two passports if you visited Israel, and we did, a lot, and they were aware of that.

“But we were very excited to be doing the work, because so many of the musicians were Jews; and in the early days, in the ’50s, the rush to see them was so great and we were bombarded with requests from all the Jewish organisations to have them play.”

But as Soviet antisemitism deepened and the Soviet Jewry campaign expanded, the Hochhausers found themselves in a bind. They would bring orchestras to London such as the Leningrad Philharmonic, 75 percent of whose musicians were Jews, and find the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry in Britain demonstrating outside the concert hall.

For all the demonstrations, Lilian and Victor, as two of the few UK Jews to make regular visits to the Soviet Union, frequently took Passover matzah and holiday prayer books to Jews in Moscow and Leningrad. But it was not a comfortable time.

“We felt very strange about the whole thing, particularly as we were so involved with the Jewish side of musical life,” Lilian says.

In 1974, as the situation reached boiling point, the Hochhausers’ good friend Rostropovich decided to leave the Soviet Union, and went to stay with Lilian and Victor in London. The Russians took away his passport, and just like that, from one day to the next, the impresarios became personae non grata in Russia.

In the same year, David Oistrakh died and it became clear that Lilian and Victor would have to rethink their work in Russia. Instead, they became interested in China and Japan, becoming the first people to bring artists (including the renowned Chinese Acrobats) from those countries to Britain.

Additionally, they were finally able to work with the Soviet ballet star, Rudolf Nureyev. Nureyev had actually defected in 1961, famously jumping over a barricade in Paris and leaving the rest of the Kirov Ballet company behind. The Hochhausers were bringing the Kirov to London — it was the company’s first trip to the West— and had turned up at the airport to welcome the company with armfuls of bouquets for the young ballet stars, including, as they thought, Nureyev.

“But we were greeted with long faces,” recalls Lilian, “because Nureyev had gone and the rest of the company knew that the KGB would be looking for someone to blame.”

Once the Soviet authorities had made it clear that they no longer wanted to work with the Hochhausers, the couple turned their attention to Nureyev, whom they presented for 12 seasons at London’s Colosseum.

“He was insatiable,” Lilian says of Nureyev, “he would dance every night if you’d let him.” But though she speaks of the dancer, who died in 1993, with affection, it is exasperated affection, as she describes him as “super-difficult. His English was… shall we say, wanting, and he never had any time. So I’d have to go and talk to him while he was practising at the barre, and he’d get very impatient if I didn’t know what he was talking about, which I hardly ever did.”

Every summer, Lilian says, dealing with Nureyev made her lose weight — “I really suffered! He was very difficult — but he was just incredible.”

By 1991, when perestroika broke out in Russia, Lilian decided it was time to go back and get the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who had refused to appear in London for 16 years because the Hochhausers could not present him.

And she and Victor began, once again, to bring both the Kirov and Bolshoi ballet companies to the UK. Lilian has been working — pretty much non-stop — since.

Of the couple’s four children, one son, Mark Sofer, became a high-ranking Israeli diplomat, Simon Hochhauser is a tech entrepreneur and former United Synagogue president, Daniel Hochhauser is an oncologist. Only their musicologist daughter Shari Greenberg, who lives in Jerusalem and is heavily involved in the Jerusalem Music Festival, looks likely to take over the Hochhauser mantle.

“Occasionally, after a run-in with a maestro, I think, oh, what am I doing,” smiles Lilian. “But then, I suppose I like it.” And she puts down her Kirov Ballet china mug, and laughs.

  • 12 February, 2017