Celebrating the Life of Founding Director Charles Hamlen

Classical Action Founding Director Charles Hamlen – a visionary in the world of classical music management, a devoted friend and passionate advocate of the arts and people living with HIV/AIDS – passed away from leukemia in his Manhattan home on August 1, 2018. He was 75.

Hamlen dedicated much of his life to mobilizing the classical music community to raise money for those living with HIV/AIDS.

“Charlie will always be remembered as one of Broadway Cares dearest friends,” said Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.  “He was the rare individual who brought equal amounts of insight, dedication and action to his work and a graceful, easy generosity to his friendships and the people he loved.  From his inspired creation of Classical Action to his initial curating of the Michael Palm Series of house concert fundraisers, Charlie found a way to leverage his professional stature that made a difference for so many.”

Earlier this summer, Viola told Hamlen that Classical Action’s Michael Palm Series – its iconic presentation of the world’s most brilliant musicians in an intimate salon setting – was to be renamed the Hamlen Palm Series to honor both gentlemen.

“Michael Palm was a visionary and an extraordinarily generous man whose dedication to the work of Classical Action continues to resonate with each and every house concert we present,” Hamlen said. “To share his name on this series is a deeply personal honor. Of all my professional accomplishments, to be remembered in this way means the most to me. It brings all my worlds, all the people I love, together.”

Acting solely on instinct, Hamlen left a life as a French teacher who took great joy in playing the piano to reinvent himself and create a new life as an artists’ manager in New York City in 1977. Small successes became noticeable accomplishments.  He surpassed all odds and, in 1984, co-founded what ultimately became IMG Artists, now one of the foremost global arts management agencies in the world.

However, tragedy struck Hamlen when his partner, Carlos Flor, died from AIDS in 1988.  As was happening for so many in all aspects of the arts, Hamlen’s professional world and personal life were shattered by a plague that much of the world around him was all too eager to ignore.  Heartbroken and enraged, Hamlen asked himself, “Why isn’t the classical music performing arts community more engaged and standing up in the fight against AIDS?” Rather than waiting for a lifeline, Hamlen decided to be the answer to this vital, urgent question.

Hamlen left IMG Artists to form Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. The organization’s humble roots started with a mass mailing appeal sent from a donated office space on West 45th Street.

In 1997, Classical Action became a program within Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, providing Classical Action with a home in which to root and flourish, offering in-house production expertise and administrative support across all fundraising initiatives. In fact, Hamlen had said, it was Broadway Cares that first inspired him on how to take action within a professional community and respond to the crisis.

Driven by Hamlen’s connections within the industry, more than 150 classical music luminaries have shared their time and immeasurable talents in a myriad of house concerts, from Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and Andre Watts to Emanuel Ax, Yuja Wang and Renée Fleming. The concerts were originally named after Palm, one of Classical Action’s first major donors, a financial expert and philanthropist who dedicated his life to the arts and the fight against HIV/AIDS. Palm died in 1998.

In addition to the Michael Palm Series, Hamlen spearheaded the yearly bowling fundraiser Up Our Alley. Buoyed by the fundraising efforts of the performing arts, financial, media and pharmaceutical industries, participants raised money for Classical Action through peer-to-peer fundraising, culminating in a friendly but always raucous bowling tournament.

In 2009, Hamlen returned to IMG Artists in the role of worldwide chairman. Three years later, he became artistic adviser to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York. Although he left Classical Action in the trusted hands of Broadway Cares, he stayed deeply connected, offering his guidance, sage counsel and unparalleled expertise in person, by email or phone and at his beloved Etcetera, Etcetera over dinners that were filled with ideas, dreams, pride of accomplishment and red wine.

Anyone who spent time with Hamlen knew his love for the city of Paris.  The French have a word “bonhomme” that means “a good-natured pal” or “chap” but literally translates to “good man.” Charlie Hamlen was a “bonhomme.”  A beloved, good man.

Without Hamlen, classical music artists would not have had a united voice through which to fight HIV/AIDS and make a tangible difference in the lives of people in need across the country.

Hamlen will be much missed and long remembered. Broadway Cares is forever thankful for his contributions and strives to continue and expand his legacy through Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS.

Photos by Steve J. Sherman