Raymond Gubbay: Maestro to Middle England

The Royal Opera House might not want him at its helm, but there's no doubt that the promoter has delivered the masses to classical music. The establishment could learn from him.
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The Independent Online

A concert promoter must promote and an impresario must impress, and on both counts Raymond Gubbay is rather successful. Last year he put on more than 650 shows up and down the country, mostly within the field of "light" classical music and opera. They included his famous "Classical Spectaculars", in which the orchestra plays popular classics to the accompaniment of lights and lasers, military bands, cannons and, in his own words, "the kitchen sink". Then there are his Teddy Bear concerts, where any kid carrying a teddy bear gets in free; next week at the Barbican in London, his annual 14 February concert promises "a Valentine's Day rose for every lady in the audience". In May he brings the Bolshoi ballet to Drury Lane to dance highlights from Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet.

A concert promoter must promote and an impresario must impress, and on both counts Raymond Gubbay is rather successful. Last year he put on more than 650 shows up and down the country, mostly within the field of "light" classical music and opera. They included his famous "Classical Spectaculars", in which the orchestra plays popular classics to the accompaniment of lights and lasers, military bands, cannons and, in his own words, "the kitchen sink". Then there are his Teddy Bear concerts, where any kid carrying a teddy bear gets in free; next week at the Barbican in London, his annual 14 February concert promises "a Valentine's Day rose for every lady in the audience". In May he brings the Bolshoi ballet to Drury Lane to dance highlights from Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet.

This is middlebrow music for Middle England, and it's very successful. It may not be particularly serious, and it certainly does nothing to promote anything new or adventurous, but as Gubbay proudly boasts, it's all done without a penny of subsidy. His shows rarely get press coverage, yet Gubbay himself gets plenty of it. After 35 years of putting on concerts, he knows how to attract attention, and if he can't get the critics to his concerts, he'll get the press by other means.

When most of us send in a job application, we pray for secrecy. Not so Gubbay. Towards the end of last year he applied for the job of executive director at the Royal Opera House, a post that was vacant after the resignation of the American Michael Kaiser. His application went not only to Covent Garden, but also to the national newspapers, which received his suggestions for reforming the beleaguered institution as well. The main proposal was that the ROH should be privatised, an idea that might have been laughed out of court 10 years ago but now seems to be gaining support, even in the august pages of Opera magazine.

All of this was reported not on the arts pages but as national news. And many of the reports included the information that Gubbay's Royal Albert Hall production of Verdi's Aida would be opening in February 2001. Mission accomplished, Aida duly plugged. That show is now in rehearsal. Last week, Gubbay got into a tiff with the actors' union Equity, which wanted to discuss union recognition. Gubbay was having none of it and locked Equity out of the rehearsal studio. Not only was this confrontation reported in the national press, but there was a portrait of Gubbay posing nonchalantly outside the studio with part of the set, no doubt brought out of rehearsal especially for the photograph.

Well, a promoter must promote, and there's no such thing as bad publicity. Gubbay is no philistine, but is happy to exploit the philistinism of a press that only takes an interest in culture as long as it's dressed up as controversy. Nor is he a charlatan. His Royal Albert Hall opera stagings ( Aida is the fourth) are both successful and serious; David Freeman's production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly was seen by more than 60,000 people when it was new in 1998, and by as many people again when it was revived last year. It was also the most acutely observed production of the opera seen in London during the 1990s.

It is the success of these Albert Hall shows that lends weight to Gubbay's application to run Covert Garden; and while he knew he hadn't a chance in hell of getting the job, his proposals for dealing with the Royal Opera House contain a great deal of sense. Privatised or not, the ROH might be able to reduce ticket prices and subsidy if it pays attention.

It's not that Gubbay has anything against the subsidised sector. While his business may not be subsidised, it relies on the existence of a complex infrastructure of funding that embraces the music colleges, the concert halls, the orchestras, the opera houses and opera companies, without which he would face the impossible task of building his concerts from scratch. As he admits: "The fact that we do what we do without subsidy doesn't mean that music doesn't need any subsidy at all. Subsidy gives us our great orchestras, our opera and ballet companies; but there has to be a place for a commercial entrepreneur to run alongside the subsidised sector." Gubbay enjoys portraying himself as someone from beyond the classical music pale, and has a tendency to view every criticism of him as coming from "the establishment", as if he were a dangerous rebel threatening the citadel from without. In fact, Gubbay is part and parcel of the classical music establishment. His "Classical Spectaculars" are no more revolutionary than Thomas Beecham's "lollipops", and the kind of popular shows he offers have been integral to classical music since time immemorial: it's just that Gubbay does them better than most.

That is something the classical music "establishment" acknowledges. Apart from the Albert Hall, the Barbican is Gubbay's main London "home". He has been promoting concerts there since it opened in 1982, at one time putting on around 80 shows a year, and he still takes responsibility for most of the hall's Christmas concerts. The Barbican's artistic director, Graham Sheffield, is happy to admit that Gubbay "was instrumental in establishing the place as a good venue for classical music, no question of that". Gubbay is not a trained musician, and in press releases and interviews rarely fails to mention that he failed Grade One piano. Born in 1946 into moderate prosperity in the north-western London suburb of Cricklewood - just the sort of place where you would expect Gubbay concertgoers to live - he at first looked set to make a career in his father's accountancy firm. That proved hardly more alluring than a brief spell holding lights for Pathe Newsreels. His own biographical handout takes up the story: "A fortuitous introduction to Victor Hochhauser [a concert agent] and the right answer to three questions at the interview (Are you a Jewish boy? Where did you go to school? Can you start on Monday?) gave him employment for the next 10 months, 28 days and 12 hours escorting Russian folk dancers and choirs around the country."

Gubbay was a fast learner. Within a short time he'd left the Hochhauser fold to set up on his own; and began promoting concerts in London in 1968. Today, as Sheffield puts it, "the word Gubbay is a brand-name in classical music, just as M&S is to convenience food, and I'm sure there are people who follow the brand wherever it might turn up, whether at the Barbican, the West End or the Albert Hall. You wouldn't find him putting on Berio and Birtwistle, and why should he? I think he's realised that the market for classical music and opera has shifted, people are demanding higher quality, more lavish productions, perhaps more rehearsals, and his work over the last 10 years has reflected that. Whether you are used to going to Covent Garden, Salzburg or Vienna, the operas he has put on at the Albert Hall are bloody good evenings."

Until Covent Garden sorts itself out, Gubbay will continue to take pot shots at it, and the ROH will continue to make good if predictable copy; but Gubbay is neither the salvation nor the ruination of classical music in this country. Rather, he is an element in a complex ecology. He has challenging things to say about the ROH, but why not get good column inches out of it if he has a show to promote? Similarly, if a small contretemps with a union can be turned into a photo opportunity, why not, if it sells a few tickets to Aida?

Let Sheffield from the Barbican have the last word: "One of the things I admire about him is that he's such a good self-publicist; you can't take it away from the guy. He doesn't take himself too seriously, although he has many serious points to make. Applying for the job at Covent Garden was a masterstroke, yet in many ways what he had to say about the place was spot on. He's a goad for keeping people in the subsidised sector on their toes: the music scene would be duller without him."

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