5 Memories of a legendary impresario

Widely described as the person who’s brought classical music to more people in the UK than anyone else, iconic impresario Raymond Gubbay shares five incredible memories from his colourful career

The beginning

My first job in the world of promoting live music was with the impresario Victor Hochhauser who had an unorthodox interviewing style. My interview consisted of three questions: “Where did you go to school?” “Are you a Jewish boy?” and “Can you start on Monday?”

I did indeed start on the following Monday and so started a career and life I could hardly have dreamed possible, and one I don’t think would be possible now. In the ten months, 28 days and 12 hours that I worked for Victor, I learned so much and left when I was 19 to start out on my own.

Hochhauser was particularly known for presenting Russian artists and ensembles during the Soviet period and through him I worked with many of the great Russian companies, singers and dancers. I remember Rudolf Nureyev coming backstage to greet old friends in Moiseyev Dance Company. Because he had recently defected, and no doubt mindful of their KGB minders, all the dancers turned their backs to Nureyev and wouldn’t speak to him. He was clearly crushed by their refusal to even acknowledge him.

Raymond by Clara Molden

Princess Diana

Working in the music industry, you get to meet most of the royals over time, but only one was convincing in their love of the arts. I had the pleasure of meeting Princess Diana several times, mostly through her role as Patron of English National Ballet who I regularly presented at the Royal Albert Hall.

One occasion sticks out in particular as memorable and I think it says a great deal of how smart she was and fully aware of the impact her actions would have. Just a few months before her death she came to a rehearsal of Swan Lake with dancers from English National Ballet for photographs with the Swans for The Times. She was supposed to leave the rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall after the photographs had been taken but asked to stay and watch. When asked where she’d like to sit she beckoned to the Royal Box and was duly sat there. Someone on her team must have tipped off ITN as to where she was, as a crew suddenly arrived and filmed her in the Royal Box.

"I think it says a great deal of how smart she was and fully aware of the impact her actions would have"

It was only the following day that her actions became clearer—the Royal Box is the property of the Crown and therefore, as an ex-Royal, Diana had no right to use it as she pleased, let alone give a televised interview from it.

Apparently, the Royal Household took great exception to this and made various vociferous complaints to all and sundry. Meantime, the few remaining tickets sold out and Diana had made her point to the Royal Household. 

Gubbay (left) with Kiri Te Kanawa and Carl Davis, by Clive Totman

Miles Davis

I don’t quite know how I came to book Miles Davis in what turned out to be his penultimate appearance in the UK. Somehow the opportunity arose, just one of those things that can happen in this business, and I grabbed it with both hands even though it was outside of my usual comfort zone. Then came a big problem, where to present him? As this was all being done at just a few months’ notice, all the usual London venues were already booked. So I called the Odeon Hammersmith which happened to have the date free. I announced the date and it sold out so quickly that I was able to announce a second show (despite great resistance from his management) which also sold out.

On the day of the first show I was unusually stressed, largely on account of having been told that Miles Davis could be difficult to deal with. In the event, Miles arrived bang on time for the soundcheck with his son, who was playing with him, and the other musicians together with a small entourage. They just got on with the preparations, all very straight forward, no fuss at all, and produced the first of two fantastic performances.

"On the day of the first show I was unusually stressed, largely on account of having been told that Miles Davis could be difficult to deal with"

I have never had the occasion to go back to Odeon Hammersmith, it is rather off my usual circuit, but boy, was I proud of those two performances there which I remember to this day with great pleasure and pride.

The great Jacqueline du Pré

In 1976 I had to dismiss the director of my Johann Strauss Galas for trying to set up a rival production off the back of mine. I persuaded Jack Rothstein, a very fine violinist, to take over and apart from a horn player who clearly had “history” with Jack, delivering a string of expletives at the first rehearsal and walking out, this passed off well.

It transpired that Jack knew the great cellist Jaqueline du Pré, by then wheelchair bound from multiple sclerosis. Thanks to Jack’s friendship with her she started to come to rehearsals before tours started and even came to a couple of performances at the Barbican.

Always smiling, friendly and sometimes making minimal movements in so far as she was able to the music, which she clearly enjoyed, she brightened up the sessions to no end. It was so sad to see her now in this state, but her courage and love of music shone through. I remember her still when I hear the opening bars of the Elgar Cello Concerto, but I also have a vision of her happily trying to clap along every time I hear the “Radetzky March.”

Gubbay with Pavarotti, by Clive Totman

Offers, I’ve had a few…

Any successful entrepreneur gets offers for their business—some friendly in tone, others rather more hostile. Over the years I have had various offers to sell the business with one of the strangest happening 25 years ago, before the big arena presentations of opera and ballet really took off at the Royal Albert Hall.

"Any successful entrepreneur gets offers for their business—some friendly in tone, others rather more hostile"

A businessman was introduced to me by someone I barely knew. “Mr X”, let’s call him, arrived to see me accompanied by his son. After a lot of circling around the issue, he suddenly announced that he wanted to buy 40 per cent of my business, but that he would by some means or other get control.

For this he offered a certain sum of money. I was not particularly interested in selling but, in any case, the sum mentioned was insufficient to cause any excitement. When he realised this, he added that it could be paid in cash in brown paper bags. I had difficulty in not bursting out laughing; I had to remind him that mine was a legitimate business, we paid all our dues and that his offer was of no interest whatsoever.

Raymond Gubbay’s autobiography, Lowering the Tone and Raising the Roof, is available now from Quiller Publishing

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