Impresario Raymond Gubbay talks to Pianist after launching his brand-new book, 'Lowering the Tone, Raising the Roof'

04 June 2021
By Ellie Palmer
Gubbay discusses the business of promoting, Victor Borge, piano greats he's worked with, and of course his new book
How did you get into the business of promoting live-performances?

I was 20 when I started on my own having worked for the promoter Victor Hochhauser when I was just 18. It was a good apprenticeship and I rather thought I knew it all! Ah, the exuberance of youth. I began with very small scale events – three or four singers and a pianist. After that, like Topsy, it just grew.


You worked a great deal with Victor Borge. Could you tell us how you met him, what he was like to work with and what was special about him?

Borge (that was his Christian name) was a really wonderful person to know. He was a trained classical pianist when he escaped from Denmark just as the Nazis invaded. He ended up in America where he adopted the name, Victor Borge, and found they rather liked his comedy even more than his serious piano playing! I worked with him many times, including at all three major London concert halls. He was a joy to be with and a deeply committed musician who loved nothing better that to discuss music over dinner after another fine performance.


Raymond Gubbay (right) and Victor Borge. ©Clive Tolman


People most often associate you with popular repertoire presented in big venues with fireworks etc, but you’ve also worked with some of the piano greats. Can you tell us about some of the pianists you’ve worked with?

When the Barbican opened in 1982 it gave me the opportunity to promote a lot more concerts than I’d be able to previously. I worked with many pianists. In no particular order I remember Peter Donohoe, Barry Douglas (just after he won the Tchaikovsky in Moscow), Malcolm Binns, Cristina Ortiz (who did two Beethoven Cycles for me with Charles Groves and the RPO), Stephen Hough just after he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year, Cécile Ousset, Peter Katin, Fou Ts’ong, and loads more. One of the great pleasures was being able to engage young, unknown artists alongside well-known names. The public seemed to trust my judgement and filled the place irrespective.


John Ogdon was someone you particularly admired and became close to, can you tell us about him and your experiences of working with him? What did he have that others didn’t?

John was the most wonderful, kind and generous spirit. I first engaged him when he was still having treatment following his breakdown. His playing was idiosyncratic and for conductors he wasn’t easy to work with but oh boy, could he give a performance.

I feel honoured to have worked with him, he really was one of the greats. I remember one well-known conductor saying to him as they were going onstage, “We’ll try to keep up with you, John”. He only just managed to.


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Raymond Gubbay. ©Clara Molden


Have you ever been in awe of an artist, and if so, who were they and why were you in awe of them?

Being in awe is not something I’ve been aware of. As a promoter, you have to keep both feet firmly on the ground and get on with it. Ivo Pogorelich was quite something though. I always got on very well with him and his wife who had a habit of calling me, “Gubbay, Gubbay”. He appeared in only three of the six performances I booked him for over a couple of seasons at the Barbican and in the end I had to give up as I could no longer get insurance for him.

He’s the only pianist I’ve ever worked with who managed to break a string.


What lessons do you hope are learnt by musicians/musical organisations from the pandemic?

Stop believing in Santa Claus and remember that Armageddon can arrive out of nowhere.


Any tips for anyone who would like to follow in your footsteps and become an impresario?

As I’ve said to my grandchildren to whom I’ve dedicated my book, I hope you all get proper jobs and are never tempted to follow in Grandad’s footsteps. Not an easy business to be in and I don’t think I’d get very far if I were starting out today. To me, putting on concerts and performances was what it was all about. Making money is nice but making music and pleasing audiences is much more important.


Anything else you’d like to talk about – especially if it’s about the piano?

One of the strangest experiences I had was when the piano lift broke down at the Barbican mid-performance. We hastily rearranged the programme and in the interval, the stage crew aided by some able bodied members of the audience, managed to manhandle the piano onto the stage for Peter Donohoe to play the concerto in the second half.


Raymond Gubbay’s autobiography, 'Lowering the Tone, Raising the Roof' is out now from Quiller Publishing.

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