Taking class out of the classics

Raymond Gubbay gave us Opera Singalong and `Turandot' T-shirts. Is he crass - or just a populist?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In his 30 years as a promoter of classical music concerts, Raymond Gubbay has been responsible for, among other things, the following not strictly traditional evenings of entertainment: a production of Puccini's Turandot at the 8,000-seater Wembley Arena; a concert series entitled "Classical Spectacular" featuring an amplified orchestra, lasers, lights and dry ice; a "Teddy Bear" concert at the Barbican, for which everyone was encouraged to come bearing cuddly toys; a Valentine's Day recital during which each of the ladies present received a rose; many events starring Aled Jones, the soprano chorister of "Walking in the Air" fame; and, last year, again at the Barbican, an "Opera Singalong", for which the words were reproduced in the programme enabling the entire audience to join the on-stage soloists in a selection of popular arias and other operatic juicy bits.

These efforts have earned Gubbay two polarised reputations. Reactions tend to divide fairly sharply between his fans, who see Gubbay as a big- hearted, unflinching populist in a notoriously stuffy and exclusive area, a man who has spotted and supplied a musical need; and his critics, many of them influential people in the classical music world, who tend to think of Gubbay as representing, broadly speaking, the end of civilisation as we know it. The latter, though they possibly irk him more than he lets on, Gubbay is apt to dismiss with an amenable smile and a swipe of the hand, saying, in cheerful, north London tones, "It's a free country we live in and one is doing one's own thing here."

Raymond Gubbay does his own thing from an office on the High Street in Barnet, a region renowned in London chiefly as its northernmost Tube stop. It's not the obvious place from which to deal direct with Pavarotti, but Gubbay likes it here because this is where he comes from, and from where he has rarely budged. "I always say, I was born in Cricklewood, brought up in Golders Green, married in Barnet and divorced on Hadley Green." He can walk to work from his house in five minutes and pause to feed the ducks on the pond when he wishes.

Gubbay's own thing is a lucrative thing: company turnover last year was around £4m. But the centre of his operations is at a considerable remove from the ritzy, the spivvy, or any of the atmospheres one might associate with the dark art of concert promotion. The office occupies the first floor above a bed shop and is accessed through a side entrance down a small track. Gubbay wears a suit - neat, nothing flashy - talks fluidly, laughs loudly, has a modest way of looking down at the table while recalling, say, his times with Victor Borge, and is altogether warm and obliging. The tea comes in a Turandot mug - a merchandising gimmick commissioned for that Wembley Arena show in 1992, still rated by Gubbay as "the most thrilling experience of my professional career".

Turandot, a production with the Royal Opera Company, was well received by the music critics (who tend to have their doubts about the teddy bear and laser stuff) though Gubbay took some flak for the mugs and for the matching T-shirts and sweat tops. "There was a suggestion that we were ripping off people, but the profit we made was probably measurable in hundreds rather than thousands of pounds. It's not like the rock industry. People are very price-sensitive in the light classical world and you can't charge fancy prices without it rebounding on you." Currently booking for early June: the all-new "Opera Spectacular" at the Albert Hall - lights, juicy bits and, just possibly, a spot of audience participation. "People do like to join in," Gubbay says.

He staged the first Classical Spectacular six years ago. He sat in his office, wrote down the 15 most high-profile pieces of classical music he could think of ("favourite bits" is the phrase Gubbay uses frequently in this connection) and thought up a copy-line for the advertisments. It said: "Lights, Music, Spectacle". Then he booked an orchestra and the Albert Hall. "The most radical thing I did with the first programme was not to have soloists. There was no piano concerto, no focal point. OK, so I had a couple of singers in to sing the Pearl Fishers duet, but they were very much in and out. And in those days, we didn't even do `Nessun Dorma' because it was pre-Pavarotti and it didn't have the feeling it does now."

It sold out within 10 days. Since then, Gubbay has organised 60 of these shows at the Albert Hall and 100 more around the country in venues such as the Birmingham NEC, the kinds of place people more commonly go to see Simply Red or Bruce Springsteen.

"A lot of people are attracted to classical music because they enjoy the tunes but they don't like the formality of the concert hall. The Festival Hall, if you're not used to it, can be a very stultifying experience. You see the players shambling on in their penguin suits in the half-light and when the concert starts, if you're used to hearing your favourite bits of music on CD or on a Walkman, there's no volume knob to turn up and sometimes the sound in even our best concert halls is not the kind of sound that that kind of audience wants to hear. This is probably anathema to the music establishment but my results are there at the box office."

Last summer, 20,000 attended a Classical Spectacular in the open air at the Milton Keynes Bowl, "bringing their chairs and tables and candelabra and having a great time". In the week I met Gubbay, he was off to negotiate Classical Spectacular deals for this summer in Stockholm and then Brussels and after that Hamburg. Apparently Europe likes to join in, too.

Gubbay was born in 1946. At school, he says, he showed no talent for music or even any particular preference for it. Nevertheless, his grandmother would take him to Saturday matines at the Golders Green Hippodrome and seat him on one of the wooden benches up in the gods. He has vague memories of a pantomime with Jimmy Edwards. He saw the D'Oyly Carte sing The Mikado and The Merry Widow. He watched Margot Fonteyn dance with Nureyev in Giselle, on tour with the Royal Ballet. Marlene Dietrich did a week of shows there and he saw Sybil Thorndike in Arsenic and Old Lace. He also recalls being taken into the West End at one point to see Verdi's A Masked Ball, "which must have been pretty heavy going for a youngster".

Gubbay left school at 16 and went to be articled to his father, who ran a one-man accountancy practice in the West End. After eight months, Gubbay was six months behind with the obligatory correspondence course and "had an inkling that maybe I wasn't cut out for this kind of thing". This was, he says, "a big disappointment" to his father. But his father now lives in a bungalow in the grounds of Gubbay's house and so has in all likelihood got over it. "And those months probably did stand me in good stead. I learnt how to use a calculator."

After accountancy, he went and worked for Pathe Newsreel in Wardour Street, joining in the week of Kennedy's assassination. Sometimes, he would go out on location and assist the cameraman by holding a lamp.

"But my main job there was to read the newspapers every day and find stories for the newsroom. Most of the things I was coming up with were about theatre and television, which they saw as great rivals to the cinema. So I don't think I placed a single story on Pathe Newsreel. I was out of synch with their feelings."

His next job was with the concert promoter Victor Hochhauser. The interview was brief: "He said, `Where did you go to school?' I said, `Hampstead.' He said, `Are you a Jewish boy?' I said, `Yes.' He said, `Can you start Monday?' " (Hochhauser's office, incidentally, in a kind of parallel with Gubbay's, was over a store selling fridges.)

"We'd ring up Ibbs & Tillett, who were the big agents in those days, and they would quote a fee for somebody for a Sunday night concert, and we would beat them down a bit, get it down to 40 guineas. And you would hear Victor screaming through from his office: `Offer them pounds!' "

Hochhauser was loud and populist. Gubbay worked with him for "10 months, 28 days and 12 hours. That was all the time I could tolerate the way of working there." But it was a crash course in the trade. He learnt that classical concert promotion was "not a genteel business and never has been. It's a bit more genteel than pop and rock but it still isn't genteel."

Gubbay set up on his own in 1966. He had a tiny office in a former brothel in Oxford Street and some part-time secretarial help. His first concert promotion - a night of Gilbert & Sullivan at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - coincided inauspiciously with the Aberfan mining disaster. "We had the vicar on the stage beforehand." But he prospered rapidly. He soon had a colleague, Bob Jolley, who is now his partner, and had built up the business to 150 concerts per year by the early Seventies.

There have been a couple of shaky moments - in particular a disastrous attempt to transfer a production of Iolanthe into the West End. But in Gubbay's office, the photographs hung on the walls and clustered in stand- up frames on a side-table attest to a larger number of good times. Here's Carreras. Here's Victor Borge. Here, somewhat incongruously, is Gubbay at a boxing night with Henry Cooper. Here's Aled Jones, to whom Gubbay refers with awe as "the boy wonder. We had to do extra shows in the morning to cater for the demand. That was a unique talent."

And here's Pavarotti giving a masterclass at the Barbican. "We got in a dozen chairs for him to consider using on stage - thrones, antique chairs, all sorts. He laughed when these were paraded before him and produced from his bag a travelling stool which he screwed together and used instead." And here, clutching a concert programme, is John Major. "I've only got that there to prove that he did actually come to Turandot, because it was unusual to see him at anything cultural."

At his most philosophical, Gubbay will argue that his work in opening up a snobbery-riven world has a kind of educational purpose. He concedes that "it's difficult to convert people from listening to their favourite bits to going and sitting through the whole opera". But that's not to say they can't go on from here. "They won't get all the lights and lasers, but maybe they'll enjoy a straight programme."

Critics remark that he is one of the most powerful men in classical music and so could make another kind of name for himself if he committed himself in some measure to promoting unknowns, or rising stars. This, though, is not as easy as it sounds. Precisely because Gubbay is known to be a mass-exposure merchant, agents steer their precious young charges elsewhere. And thus the snobbery circles.

He's planning a big number for this Christmas. ("We're already singing the carols in the office.") And, in June, his name is on the tickets for four concerts marking the 50th birthday of the big-name violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perlman will play Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, all popular, solid stuff. The advertisements inform you that you can book all four concerts for the price of three and get a free Perlman CD. The CD is called (Gubbay, one feels, would approve) Bits and Pieces.

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