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Lowering The Tone and Raising The Roof
By Raymond Gubbay
First published 2021
Hardback Quiller Publishing Ltd
Born in 1946 into a North London family, Raymond Gubbay, has here written a swift-flowing autobiography. It deals out anecdotes, commentary, praise and blows as it tracks across seven decades at the heart of concert promotion.
Victor Hochhauser puts in appearances throughout the book and the first chapter refers to Gubbay’s time with him as a trainee menial. Hochhauser’s name rang a loud bell with me and took me back to those days in my later teens and early twenties when the Sunday Times Arts supplement raged with large notices for Hochhauser’s popular event concerts; concerts for the broadest public not for any elite. These were often in the Royal Albert Hall or in the open-air at various London park venues. And just as often they were all-Tchaikovsky (Piano Concerto 1, 1812 - with real gunfire, Romeo and Juliet, Marche Slave). Falling out with Hochhauser early on, Gubbay went out into the world promoting concerts here and there. And there were a lot of ‘heres and theres’. One of Hochhauser’s side-swipes at his young protégé-turned-competitor is used by Gubbay to good effect (sarcasm turned on itself) on the very last page.
Gubbay at first, and to some extent later, was active in Blackpool, Scarborough, St Helens (Beecham’s birthplace), Manchester and the South Coast towns. He waxes lyrical about the sixties and seventies when the public sector was open-handed with local authorities in municipal concert halls and festival seasons, especially outside London.
As with the finest biographies there are many instances of telling name-dropping. Roger Norrington as a singer (in this capacity he appeared in an early Third Programme broadcast of RVW’s Sir John in Love) well before he became a conductor. Whole chapters - they are quite short - are devoted to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Yehudi Menuhin, G&S and satirical-political machinations about the Greater London Council. Gubbay’s early years made enterprising and mutually beneficial use of Ian Wallace and John Heddle Nash. Other figures include Manitas de Plata, Donald Swann, Ivo Pogorelich and Aled Jones.
There are affectionate and poignant memories of Victor Borge. Gubbay was also instrumental in bringing various Russians cultural troupes into popular concerts (courtesy of GOSconcert) and not just in London. This aspect provoked complications, political and otherwise, at times of heightened international tensions with the USSR. Gubbay proved a wily and determined entrepreneur-manager. Gubbay’s Viennese concerts which coincided with and complemented ITV’s series “The Strauss Family” went ahead under the aegis of John Georgiadis (with whom Gubbay had a falling out; not that this was an obstacle to some superb Strauss CDs for Chandos and a matchless Moeran Violin Concerto for Lyrita), Jack Rothstein and Willi Boskovsky. Boskovsky insisted on being paid in Swiss francs after each concert.
His projects did not always involve musicians. He broke free from that world for what amounted to a cricket revue. This deployed leading figures in the sport’s world including Brian Johnston among many other player-raconteurs. This fell in 1983 at The Barbican. It was The Barbican (or its satellite halls) that not very much later was the venue for a successful Kosher Food Fair. Princess Diana is mentioned in warm terms, though not without a swipe at Prince Andrew and his involvement with the English National Ballet. The Barbican was one of Gubbay’s prime involvements and successes and his hand was upon - among many other events - a Beethoven symphony cycle from Sir Charles Groves and concerts by Henry Mancini. Controversy in which Gubbay was to varying degrees a spectator or player is also recounted. These events included changes among the top-table management of the Barbican Centre and the Royal Opera House.
Carl Davis also comes in for a mention. Davis is a prolific writer/supplier of scores for revived silent movies and, by the way, wrote a superb original score for the BBC’s adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. In the 1990s Davis conducted a whole broadcast series of revivals of neglected British film music with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Gubbay mentions that Davis wrote the music for a revival of Abel Gance’s silent Napoleon (1929) and conducted the orchestra. Gubbay, as he rarely does, quotes a pretty acerbic press notice about Davis and his role in the Napoleon project.
Popular concerts were very much Gubbay’s stock in trade. Opera at Wembley (to frowns from the ROH) involved Turandot and a whole panoply of Calafs. The conductor for that populist series at a populist venue was Edward Downes. Other concerts series included celebrity concerts with José Carreras.
This volume has had me hankering for something substantial about that other giant of popular classical concert promotion in the UK: the previously mentioned Victor Hochhauser. This is a Hermes of a book and for the reader confers enjoyable and winged velocity. Stolid or static it never is.