BOOK REVIEW: Lowering the Tone

Raymond Gubbay

Lowering the Tone

Quiller, £18.99

The long-serving music critic of The Herald, Michael Tumelty, and myself probably amicably disagreed on as many topics as those on which we were in accord, but our unfashionable respect for promoter Raymond Gubbay was mutual.

With the not always entirely comprehending acquiescence of a series of editors, we disregarded the snooty dismissal of Gubbay’s popular season of Christmas concerts at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and ensured at least a selection of them were reviewed in the paper with the same attention as performances by the subsidised companies that we all pay for, whether we go to see and hear them or not.

Our reasons were probably slightly different, however. For me it was mainly about the audience, many of whom would attend a Gubbay gig at Christmas but rarely, if ever, go to an RSNO season concert – people I would like to draw to the Herald’s arts pages. Tumelty was chiefly interested in the economic contribution that the series made to sustaining the crucial freelance sector of Scotland’s music-making. Akin to pantomime’s importance to theatre, the scratch orchestra assembled by the “fixer” Gubbay contracted for the promoter’s season was an important boost to the annual income of the players onstage.

The fact that Gubbay operated entirely in the commercial world was both the fascination and the reason for that snobbishness about his concerts, and he himself was well aware of that. Although there is lots of interesting, and sometimes deliciously indiscreet, stuff in this memoir, it is less outspoken on the question of subsidy than the man has often been himself. There is no call for the death of the arts council and its successor bodies in these pages, and I remember that being the tenor of some of his more controversial utterances in the past. But then he is now retired, having sold his business for a substantial sum, and with no more tickets to sell.

He does have a book to sell, though, and its title is the first tool in that task. It is, in full, Lowering the Tone & Raising the Roof. Obviously, Gubbay’s argument is that he more often did the latter, than the overheard dismissive criticism he has chosen to precede it with. But then “Lowering the Tone” is a much more intriguing title, is it not?

Gubbay is, of course, a very cultured man, from a comfortably-off family, whose immigrant journey to London is unfolded in careful and compelling detail in the second chapter. On the back of The Herald’s relative enthusiasm for his promotions I secured an interview with him in the 1990s  during a trip to the capital, when he treated me to a very good lunch and was charming company. He was also careful to give me some juicy quotes about subsidy-junkies like the Royal Opera to ensure the piece had a good show in the paper.

In the same way, this memoir is spiced with some rather good stories. Although the promoter is probably more closely associated with the Royal Albert Hall, the venue in which he is pictured on the cover, it was the Barbican that really launched him as a force to be reckoned with. His work there in its early days also did a great deal to put the much-criticised building on the map, and his insider’s view of the years after it opened, and the political interference in its running, is well worth the reading.

But that section is also distinguished by his recollections of working with former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who was conducting on a less-than-successful short tour with a young cello soloist. A flavour of the author’s wry humour can be tasted in that story’s closing line: “I never quite fully understood why Mr Heath had wanted to conduct the handsome young cellist in the series of concerts and nobody ever explained.”

Alongside stories of dealings with musicians, including Menuhin and Lloyd Webber, Gubbay also has a nice tale of the soap opera of the Royal Family, when Princess Diana was still its star turn, albeit estranged from “The Firm”. That story does involve the Royal Albert Hall, the particular ownership of the seating there, and specifically the Royal Box. It is one that is sure to be co-opted by the Diana industry, and re-told in many a feature article and hagiography.

Few of them will be as readable as Raymond Gubbay’s trot down memory lane. His is not the most sparkling prose, but it is never gauche, and often droll. And his organisation of his material begins more successfully than it ends, as he squeezes in names he is determined to include. Just like a Gubbay gig though, the main purpose of the book is to reliably entertain, at a competitive price.

Keith Bruce