Legendary impresario Raymond Gubbay on his 50-year career in the music industry

Legendary impresario Raymond Gubbay on his 50-year career in the music industry

Raymond Gubbay is widely recognised as the promoter and events producer who’s brought classical music to more people in the UK than anyone else. For 50 years, he ran the company that took his name - Raymond Gubbay Ltd - and specialised in classical concerts, opera, ballet and special events in the UK and abroad. 

Gubbay has just published his autobiography, Lowering The Tone & Raising The Roof, which tells the story of his rise and his encounters with performers and executives including Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Rudolf Nureyev, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Nigel Kennedy. 

Gubbay was the first to stage opera at Wembley Arena (60,000 saw the production of Turandot) and presented hundreds of performances of opera and ballet in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as bringing his Classical Spectacular production to millions of people over 20 years at the historic venue. After a long and successful career, he sold up to DEAG Classics (the company has since been acquired by Sony Masterworks) and stepped down in 2016.

The Albert Hall will celebrate Raymond Gubbay’s long association with the venue on May 22, 2022 (a show postponed from this year because of the pandemic). 

Here, he looks back on his incredible career, considers the commercial possibilities for classical music and shares his hopes for the Albert Hall beyond the pandemic…

When you started out in the 1960s you were booking performers from the Soviet Union to play in the UK - how challenging was that for a promoter?

“It wasn't particularly easy, you just found your way through. They wanted their artists to work in the West, because they earned hard currency. The artists themself didn’t see much of it, but then they were kept in whatever style in the Soviet Union was commensurate with what they were doing. So it was a strange sort of situation, but the artists themselves were lovely to work with even though they obviously felt they were constrained by the political situation and didn't have the freedom to do what they wanted. That was brought home to me in that story I put in the book about Rudolf Nureyev [who had defected three years earlier] coming to see the folk-dance company at Bristol. He walked backstage, and they all ignored him and turned their backs on him. But I felt that if they'd had the chance, they'd have loved to have spoken to him.”

Your career launched at a time in the 1960s when the government was just starting to support the arts with its own minister. How do you feel this government is doing in terms of supporting music?

“I've never had any public support, I’ve always been a commercial producer and promoter. But I’ve always supported the need for subsidy and support for the arts, because if you want great opera companies, ballet companies, theatre companies, and particularly orchestras, you have to have government support. We've been going through this terrible situation now. The government has come up with support through the Arts Council and [DCMS]. I think it's certainly made a significant difference but it seems a bit arbitrary in the way that it's been applied, with some commercial firms getting help and others not. I think it's been a good effort, but I don’t know that the Minister himself knows much about it, some of the things he’s said show that he really has no proper grasp on it.

“We should be grateful for what support is there and let’s hope it keeps this wonderful industry going. Because the thing I've learned over the years is, whether you're subsidised or commercial, the public don't know; they come to be entertained in some way or moved. And the other thing is the great camaraderie that exists within this business, with all the people involved, whether with actors and musicians and singers - there is that kind of mutual support. I hope we're not losing too many people from this business, the performing arts, in view of what’s happened. Because people have to put bread on the table, they’ve had to go out and do other jobs. You know, will they all come back? I wonder.”

Given the impact of the pandemic, what are your hopes for the revival of the Albert Hall?

“They have got a £20 million loan from the government, and without that they would have been in rather serious trouble. The Albert Hall is a unique place. It’s our great national hall, which is so well known to people from the Proms and the Remembrance Day service they have there. It’s a place people love to go to. I’ve been privileged to work there for over five decades since I was a youngster. I have enormous affection for it and long may it continue. It's very very special.”

Your success was down not just to star names but also spectacular events for classical and opera. Did you see the immediate potential, or did that evolve over time?

“It certainly grew over time. I started with, literally, three or four singers and a pianist in 1966 and the business grew from there. So I never had any great sort of master plan, nor did I ever have any great plan to make money. What evolved was what I liked doing, and what I appeared to be reasonably successful at doing. The money was always secondary, believe it or not. The fact that, in the end, I was able to sell the business and do comfortably out of it, to the benefit of my family and my grandchildren, is lovely. But it was never the main motivation, it was never what drove me on.”

You worked with the Three Tenors, albeit separately. Do you think classical music will see that kind of mainstream impact again?

“Finding artists that cross over to a much wider public from the classical side is very difficult, because the nature of the whole thing is it’s a specialised market. But The Three Tenors did that and there are other artists nowadays that are out there, there's always something that’s going to come up, amaze us and cross over. Part of the joy of this business is watching things happen and develop. Just in the way that the BBC adopted Nessun Dorma [performed by Luciano Pavarotti] suddenly for the football [Italia ’90], that was a huge thing. Something will always come up, that's what drives the business on.”

Finding artists that cross over to a much wider public from the classical side is very difficult

Raymond Gubbay

Could you imagine working with an artist like Sheku Kanneh-Mason, if you were were still putting on events?

“Yes, if i was still promoting, I would be delighted and honoured to work with him. A young cellist coming through like that is something unexpected. And then you suddenly find there’s a whole family with him, and they could put a mini orchestra together! They are incredibly talented and very special.”

You also worked with big names from other genres such as Ray Charles and Miles Davis...

“I had those rare opportunities, it wasn't my mainstream work. Working with Miles Davis at Hammersmith [Odeon in 1990] was mind-blowing and turned out to be his last London appearances. It was a great pleasure to meet him, and to be there at the concerts was something that I treasure very much. It was the same thing with Ray Charles at the Barbican [in 1989]. I was doing a lot of work there at the time, I had the opportunity to book a performance with him and it was just tremendous. Like the rest of the audience, I was just overawed. I saw him in the green room at the Barbican, he was very businesslike and pleasant. Miles Davis was quite a private person, you couldn't really engage him in more than just exchanging pleasantries. He had his son with him and his regulars with him. You find that with artists, you know how far to go and how far to not go. You don’t want to intrude, especially when they are coming up to a performance. If they want to ask you for something, you're there to help them do things. But getting that balance right is very important.”

The chapter about Andrew Lloyd Webber is an interesting account of your collaboration on a production featuring songs from his musicals. How did you find working with him?

“It was fine. He was married to Sarah Brightman at the time. We were working with Michael Ball singing with Sarah Brightman and had a chance to do a number of concerts at the Barbican, and also some regional dates. It was a pleasant experience, it was quite demanding but then you'd expect that. I don't have any problems with people who know what they're about and know what they want. He certainly did that and it was pleasure to work with him”

One of your most unlikely bookings was former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath as a conductor in 1984...

“That was interesting because, of course, he was a politician first - and some may say he wasn't a very good politician - and a musician second. Heath was one of these very strange, colourless individuals, who you never really got to know. I went to about six of the concerts, and the strange thing was he never seemed to have anyone come to greet him or see him afterwards. His housekeeper brought him a clean shirt in London. The best response was at Chichester, where the audience were quite elderly and had probably not realised he wasn't Prime Minister any more.”

You write about members of the Royal Family, some favourably and others less so. Has there been any response?

“No, I haven’t been excommunicated or threatened with the Tower Of London. In the book, I wanted to bring out particularly the joy and the pleasure of working with Diana. The Swan Lake performance that she came to was the last public performance she attended before her death just three months later. I met her on very many occasions, she was genuinely interested in the ballet. She was the patron of English National Ballet, and she did that famous photo which is in the book, and which was on the front page of The Times. She knew many of those dancers by name, they were not just anonymous people to her, she was so keen on the ballet. They felt her loss hugely.

“As their patron, she did seek to help them raise money and to raise awareness in a way that I don't think other Royals really get into. When she came and did that photo, she said, ‘Can I stay for the dress rehearsals?’. ITN news got wind of this and cheekily asked if they could do an interview with her. She pointed to the Royal Box and said ‘Let’s go there’. The next day there was apparently a terrible hoo-ha from the Palace, [who said] she shouldn't have been allowed in there, it was the Queen’s personal property and she was no longer HRH. From her point of view, she just shrugged it off.”

If the classical music world can aim for younger audiences, that is going to be the future

Raymond Gubbay

Why did you decide to sell the company?

“Because somebody offered me enough money and I was getting older. I was probably a bit set in my ways, and when somebody offered me enough money to go, I accepted it. And in view of what’s happened since with this pandemic, I’m very glad that I did. The other reason, quite frankly, and it's been proved true, is that there was a huge dependence on the Royal Albert Hall, a lot of income came from the Hall and I always felt we were vulnerable. And as soon as I left the old company, [the Albert Hall] took the Christmas Festival themselves [after 2017] and the ballet no longer involved my old company. In both cases, I was told that they wouldn't have done that if I was still there. That's the kind of personal relationship you have with people. I did warn my successors that they needed to tend to these things, you can't just assume that something is going to go on and on. You have to bring the people with you. From my point of view, it's very sad because it was my legacy.”

What are your favourite venues?

“I love the Albert Hall, of course, because it’s just unique. I love the Festival Hall at the Southbank, because the history of it is very much the post-war history which I grew up in. It was built in 1951, and 70 years on it’s actually a pretty marvellous venue. The Barbican, I first went round with Henry Wrong, the director, with a tin hat on. They'd got the roof on but everything else was being put together. I walked around it in 1979. I thought to myself, nothing like this is ever going to happen again in my lifetime. I made a commitment there and then, I said I wanted dates. I did the Easter weekend in 1982, everything sold out and we added more dates. In the first year, I did 50 dates at the Barbican. In 1983, I did 135 concerts there including lunchtimes, because nobody wanted dates and they were very anxious to fill the diary. I just seemed to have the knack of filling the place, so that was just wonderful. The Birmingham Symphony Hall is marvellous, I was lucky enough to promote there from the very early days. If you could tow that 110 miles to London, you'd have the perfect hall.”

Finally, what do you think of the modern music industry?

“Well, it's changing and evolving. People will want live shows, and people will always be open to new ideas. I think if the classical music world can shake itself up a bit and aim for younger audiences, that is going to be the future.”

Lowering The Tone & Raising The Roof (Quiller Publishing) by Raymond Gubbay is out now.

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