He'll take the low road

Is this man giving classical music a bad name? In a frank interview, Raymond Gubbay explains all to Geraldine Bedell
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RAYMOND GUBBAY, concert promoter, is the man behind the recent Melody FM Christmas Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which included such elevated offerings as "Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas", "I Believe in Father Christmas", and the one that goes "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire", all introduced by the DJ "Diddy" David Hamilton. This is a man who is not afraid of the popular, not trammelled by notions of high art - or even, of good taste.

In 28 years of concert promotion, Gubbay has produced around 150 concerts a year, including the "Classical Spectacular" series (featuring lasers and dry ice) at the Albert Hall, "Teddy Bear" concerts at the Barbican (reduced prices for those accompanied by soft toys) and an "Opera Singalong", also at the Barbican, which offered the audience a chance to join in. He attends all performances of his concerts.

On 1 February Gubbay will launch his most ambitious venture yet: a new production of La Boheme at the Albert Hall, on the centenary of the first performance. Gubbay specialises both in classical music and in being as different as possible from the classical music establishment, whose stuffiness he is not shy of deriding, and which frequently returns the disdain.

On Wednesday he will speak in an Oxford Union debate, attacking elitism in arts funding and poking fun particularly at the Royal Opera House and the Arts Council (Jeremy Isaacs and Lord Gowrie are speaking on the opposing side), institutions he believes are bogged down in complacency. "I have a theory," he says over lunch in a restaurant round the corner from the Albert Hall, where La Boheme is in rehearsal, "that the Arts Council job could be done at its present level by a civil servant on a wet Wednesday afternoon, ticking off a list: the grants are virtually the same every year. What do all these people do?"

Such heresies, and concerts like the Melody FM extravaganza, mean that Gubbay is seen by some in the classical music world as a vulgar populist, pandering to the taste of people who don't know much about classical music but know what they like, and probably heard it first in an advertisement.

His reputation suggests some kind of Arthur Daley figure. The real Raymond Gubbay is more diffident: born in Cricklewood and brought up in Golders Green, he was educated at University College School, Hampstead, and failed Grade One piano. (His mother played the piano and his brother the violin.) He now lives in Hadley Green, Hertfordshire, in walking distance of the office in Barnet High Street where he and six others plan and organise a constant round of concerts that turns over more than pounds 4m a year. He is divorced; his younger daughter lives with him, and his elder daughter, her partner and baby (a granddaughter who "has changed my life") live round the corner.

He is a nervy, rather tense character, with a jerky way of speaking in sentences which run out of steam when his intonation least suggests they will - not a particularly easy or comfortable person to be with, but kind and accommodating, and evidently driven by real and infectious enthusiasm.

He makes no bones about being in the bums-on-seats business. But so is the Royal Opera House, and in this game, Gubbay is a master. He sold 104,000 seats over the Christmas season, and has added an extra two nights to the original five-performance Boheme run, meaning that 32,500 people will see the Albert Hall production. The question, really, is whether he wallows in such troughs of naffness that it invalidates what he has to say about less commercial organisations, such as Covent Garden. ("To charge, as they do, pounds 120 top price for a bog-standard Boheme seems to me outrageous. Why should we continue to support Covent Garden if we're not getting proper value from it, if people can't afford to go there?")

Raymond Gubbay is a kind of apotheosis of suburbia. He knows his audience, and it is irredeemably middle-of-the-road. "It's very much the Greater London mass of people - and beyond, because we get a lot of coachloads - that come in to have a good night out. It's a kind of crossover audience that doesn't say, 'Oh, we're opera lovers,' or, 'We're theatre lovers,' or whatever. It's the kind of audience that will come and try something out because they think it's going to be a pleasant night out at a price they can afford."

The audience is made up of people who like good tunes, who may be bored by the longueurs of a complete concerto, and are not remotely purist about amplification. "It's very hard to get new audiences if you play in the half-light that counts as concert lighting, with an orchestra shuffling on, and there's no volume knob like people have on their Walkman or their CD." At his annual "Classical Spectacular" concerts he offers not only loud music but also computerised lighting, canons, guns, lasers and re- enactments of the Civil War from members of the Sealed Knot.

A Gubbay concert is not avant-garde (except in its readiness to adopt the techniques of the pop concert) and he is the first to admit that he's not pushing out the boundaries of programming. He also accepts that the subsidised national companies do have different obligations, must test the audience's responses. But there are great areas of programming where what he does is not vastly different from what they do. He worked directly with the Royal Opera House in 1992, enlarging a production of Turandot and staging it at Wembley. "Working with Covent Garden was like turning on a tap and watching it all trickle away. They're used to spending vast sums of money; if one pound'll do, they'll spend two. They're not growing their audience, and that worries them, but they didn't want to tour the production, and they demanded almost twice as much money to do another one.

"I hate this arrogant attitude: 'We must have this, we must have that.' If they need more money, they should justify it. If they're going to push out the frontiers, they need to be kept on their toes. Look, Covent Garden is always going to get its grant. But the mass of the public should be able to get in at prices they can afford. Why not just subsidise from the amphitheatre upwards? If some people are prepared to pay pounds 250 to see Pavarotti, why not pounds 300?" (A spokeswoman for Covent Garden said: "There has been so much modernising here that much of Raymond's comment about waste is not applicable, if it ever was.)

His own prices for La Boheme are "pounds 37.50 down to pounds 30, except for corporate entertaining in the boxes". Of course, there are economies of scale at the Albert Hall, but he believes his ability to charge so much less is also the consequence of good husbandry. He portrays himself as a businessman first and foremost; he is careful to avoid making any more than a strictly materialist case for what he does. He denies, for example, ever having had a passion for classical music - "That's too strong a word. I had an interest" - and claims he "sort of wandered into the business and never wandered out". (After a brief spell with his father, a chartered accountant, he joined the promoter Victor Hochhauser, learning the business for long enough - 11 months - to set up on his own at the age of 20.)

He also rejects any suggestion that he has a mission to bring classical music to a wider audience. "The truth is I'm running a business, and if I'm managing to entertain people I'm happy. I don't have any illusions." And he insists the arts have to be seen in perspective: "When you see the pressures there are on Government money for health and education, things people really care about ..."

Some of the earnest commercialism may be disingenuous, however. He is evidently and infectiously an enthusiast. "The great thing about music is that however long you live you never delve into it all; there's always something new to discover." Talking about arts spending, he lets slip that "those of us involved passionately believe that the arts do influence people's lives". He certainly isn't the man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing that his enemies would like to believe. A few years ago when he was working on the Royal Academy of Music's Appeal, there was a controversy about whether the collection of Stradivarius violins should be sold. "I was firmly of the opinion that the Academy was holding those in trust for future generations. I am happy to say they are not going to sell them, ever."

Now 49, he is clearly hoping that a successful La Boheme will lead to annual Raymond Gubbay operas. (Boheme will tour Britain in November.) There are no big stars - "it's a package" - but the cast is interesting: James Lockhart is conducting, and the director is the 38-year-old black ENO director, Michael Hunt. There may even (it's the first time Gubbay has promoted a new operatic production) be reviews from the classical music press, which normally declines to notice his enterprises. Meanwhile, with his "Teddy Bear" concerts for children (throw your teddy in the air if you like the music) and his laser-lit "Classical Spectaculars", he's pleasing a lot of people. Does he think there is something distinctive, some essential Gubbay-quality, about his concerts?

"Yeah," he says. "They get large audiences."

! 'La Boheme': Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), 1-7 February; then on tour in November.