MUSIC / Give them Tubby the Tuba and the 1812: Crisis, what crisis? Impresarios Victor Hochhauser and Raymond Gubbay have rarely had it so good. By Gillian Widdicombe

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The Independent Culture
A few years before he died, Sir William Walton had a brain scan which suggested that his grey matter had deteriorated beyond recovery and he would survive only as a cabbage. In fact, within a few weeks he perked up, got up and had another scan which revealed that grey matter had demolished cabbage. Clearly, the scanners had misread or misunderstood their new technology, and fortunately Walton never twigged any of this.

A similar blip has taken place, I think, concerning orchestral concerts, especially in London. The Arts Council's scan of the Festival Hall audience has revealed a steady falling or dying off, from 81 to 60 per cent over the last 20 years. In panic it proposed the creation of a super orchestra which proved as hard to implement as a brain transplant, so the Council's music policy collapsed into cabbages all round.

Before the poor old audience undergoes the next scan, or scam, I would like to draw attention to what is going on in another part of the forest. Popular classical concerts have never been so prevalent or successful, and two commercial impresarios, unburdened by subsidy, can be heard saying, 'Declining audience? Rubbish]'

Raymond Gubbay has promoted an unprecedented 40 concerts in the last three weeks, marketed with handles such as 'The Glory of Christmas' and 'Mozart in Costume'. Victor Hochhauser, now aged 70, has just completed a run of Albert Hall 'spectaculars', and received the CBE in the New Year honours. Perhaps these guys should be running the South Bank, rather than Boulez fan Nicholas Snowman and his 70-strong marketing team. Certainly, Gubbay and Hochhauser are more in touch with the Classic FM audience, which the South Bank now realises it must seek to balance its up-market evenings, than anyone else in the business.

Victor has been in business since 1945, his autograph book bearing glorious inscriptions by Solomon, Furtwangler, Moiseiwitsch, the young Menuhin, Harriet Cohen, then from the mid-Fifties all the Russians - Oistrakh, Gilels, Kondrashin, Richter, Rostropovich, the Bolshoi, the Kirov, and so on. He has had his ups and downs - both the persecution of Soviet Jewry and his sheltering of Rostropovich disrupted his business interests - but his philosophy seems to be: don't let the buggers think you depend on them. When the Russians stopped coming, in the mid-Seventies, Hochhauser and his wife, Lillian, got into bed with the Chinese, bringing the Peking Opera to London for the first time.

Hochhauser rightly gets upset if you suggest he has made a living out of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. He has done many innovative things in his time, and recalls with particular relish when he had the bright idea of presenting a user-friendly concert with Sir Thomas Beecham which, the brochure announced, would include Beecham introducing each piece before conducting it. The audience arrived early, as bidden, but the great man dawdled endlessly over his toilette and when he eventually arrived on the podium to impart his charming wisdom all he said was: 'Ladies and gentlemen, let the music speak for itself.' When Hochhauser got his CBE, someone said it stood for 'Can't Be Expensive', and if the South Bank were to follow his example it would certainly save money on rehearsals. Rarely does a Hochhauser pop concert have more than a run-through on the morning of the concert. And though he knows the market value of stars, many of his events feature young artists.

Hochhauser has no time for elaborate marketing or PR: most of his tickets are sold from newspaper advertising which jumps off the page in bold type, no artwork.

Hochhauser has had many imitators over the years, including the conductor Anatole Fistoulari, but most have fallen away. But today a natural successor is in danger of overwhelming the parent: Raymond Gubbay, a former Hochhauser paper-clip minder, has an impressive survival sheet which includes 1,200 popular concerts at the Barbican alone since it opened in 1982.

When it comes to special effects Gubbay leaves Hochhauser for dead. A Hochhauser concert may advertise cannon, mortar and 'spectacular lasers' to accompany the 1812, but in reality this only means the odd light bouncing off mirrors. (Hochauser has seen the light here, since he sat through the whole of one of his own concerts last week, realising that most of the audience couldn't see the laser effects, while those who could found them distracting.) Gubbay gives you state-of-the-art lasers, his triumph so far an arena version of Holst's The Planets with symbolic images, staged for one performance each in Wembley, Birmingham and Sheffield, to an audience of 25,000.

Gubbay looks forward not just to more performances, but to the provision of more arenas - say in Middlesbrough or Newcastle and Exeter - in which to take classical music nearer to the rock experience. This year's novelty will be a 'Battle of Britain' concert in August, in the courtyard of Blenheim Palace, with the Philharmonia and Robert Hardy as Churchill fighting on the beaches.

The majority of Gubbay's promotions are altogether more cosy: concerts to which children bring their teddies, concerts on Valentine's Day when the ladies receive red roses, and concerts at which the orchestra wears period costume to play Mozart on modern instruments. Early music buffs may mutter darkly about the fancy-dress Mozart being a Mad Hatter's Tea party, but Gubbay has no time for what he calls 'the whine and grind of the early music brigade'. His concerts pander to the short concentration span, the famous composer, the popular tune, and he waxes lyrical about value for money, claiming that his concerts last well over two hours while many an upmarket subsidised one will short-change the audience.

He has his own freelance band, the London Concert Orchestra, so if something really flops, he cancels: for example, he pulled two concerts at the Barbican, on the same day, featuring stars from the television show, Bread.

Gubbay takes a dim view of the Festival Hall's management, joking that it would be cheaper to send the entire audience to South America than bring one of Snowman's festival packages to the South Bank. He'll laugh himself silly when he hears of the South Bank's latest marketing ploy - a 'qualitative' audience scan, full of quadrants and segments, and claims that people go to concerts with 'Inner Directed Values' such as:

Escape from everyday life

Personal fulfilment / development

Emotional release

Broadening horizons, self-improvement

Stimulation, challenging, uplifting, thought-provoking

Inspires imagination, opens mind

Relaxing, unwinding, changing pace

I'm beginning to wonder whether it was a mistake for the South Bank to have changed from a receiving hall to a centre with an artistic policy, but Harrison Birtwistle may yet save the day, taking a leaf out of Hochauser and Gubbay's book. One of the things he wants to do as the London Philharmonic's resident composer is programme concerts of the sort of music that he loved in childhood, like 'Tubby the Tuba' and the 1812.

(Photograph omitted)