Tomorrow in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and onMonday at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the Raymond Gubbay Christmas Festival begins. Happy Hanukkah, Mr Gubbay – an impresario who provides more music over the festive season than anyone else.
The concerts are, to be sure, the familiar mix: carols by candlelight; an opera gala; Russian music; big band nights, but Gubbay’s promotions annexe the main concert halls in Scotland’s main population centres because the format is very popular. It is a phenomenon my colleague Michael Tumelty has monitored closely as it has grown and as usual he will be reviewing a selection. It is also a style that has been aped by the subsidised sector. Gubbay is in the front rank of those who decry “subsidy junkies” in the arts, but that has not deterred those in receipt of government money from following his example. Nor has it stopped Gubbay himself using the subsidised Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the past for his Christmas concerts (these days the orchestra’s own promotions appear among the Gubbay dates).
The important consideration, of course, is not the nature of what is being presented, but its quality. Box office receipts for Gubbay’s season would not be so impressive if the concerts were not slickly presented and the performances (variable though they can be) often very good indeed. Mr Gubbay is no snake-oil salesman and his recent appearance on Radio 4’s perennial Desert Island Discs was consequently of particular interest.
These days, of course, Desert Island Discs is often far from the programme its creator Roy Plomley would recognise. Things have moved on since 1942 andmusic of all hues is now selected by the castaways. Gubbay, however, produced a programme that was as “classic” a show as you could hope to hear. The discs made for a roll-call of the most famous names from opera and classical music: Callas and Schwarzkopf, Menuhin and the Berlin Phil, Beethoven, Puccini, Mozart and Verdi. Bless him, even his luxury – an espresso machine – showed no signs of eccentricity.
Yet, as presenter Kirsty Young pointed out, there is something arresting about the Gubbay life story. Born just after the SecondWorldWar, of the generation that became the first teenagers, for him Elvis and The Beatles never happened. When his contemporaries all discovered rock’n’roll, he spent his youth going to concerts in the Golders Green Hippodrome, then went on to produce drawing room entertainments of Viennese music and Gilbert and Sullivan.
He must have been thought an elitist in his tastes by his peers, yet today he is the quintessential populist. Is that apparent contradiction just a question of changing times or is there more to it than that?
Most obviously, there needs to be a clear distinction, now as then, between artistic elitism and social elitism. The latter is simply snobbery and often manifests itself in a condescending curiosity about anything that attracts a mass audience, from a position of never having been part of one. Artistic elitism is an appreciation of excellence and an unwillingness to be fobbed off with the ill-considered or the second rate. The route to the second is primarily education, not class, yet it is not unusual to hear apparently educated people confuse the two; condemning artistically appreciative people for snootiness and the less well off for philistinism.
Gubbay illustrated where he stood when Young asked him how he chose what to produce. He began by saying something about giving the people what they want but quickly qualified that with “what he wanted to hear himself”. There you have it: he is fortunate, skilled, and educated enough to have the taste to recognise work that is worth sharing. There was, of course, not a selection among Gubbay’s Desert Island eight that was less than top notch. Two of them, perhaps tellingly, are now available on industryrevolutionising budget label Naxos at £5.99 each. See bbc.co.uk/radio4 for details.
Raymond Gubbay’s Scottish concert season begins tomorrow at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh with a carol concert and runs through to Strauss Galas at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 13 and 14