My best teacher

25th February 2000 at 00:00
I left school at 16 and went into accountancy because my dad was a chartered accountant. I failed miserably. After eight months I was six months behind with my correspondence course and realised it wasn't the job for me.

By chance, my father met the playwright Arnold Wesker through one of his clients and told him I was interested in the theatre and Wesker gave me an introduction to the impresario Victor Hochhauser, now aged 76.

At that time Victor worked from an office above a fridge shop in Kensington Church Street, though he moved to more imposing premises later. He asked me three questions: "Where did you go to school?" "Are you Jewish?" and "Can you start on Monday?" I replied: "University College school, Hampstead", "Yes" and "Yes". And that was the start of my career in concert promotion.

I worked for Victor for 10 months, 28 days and 12 hours, which was probably the equivalent of five years at university.

He was very demanding but I absorbed things quickly and I learned to live off my wits. Right from the beginning I was given my head. I was allowed to read all the files and to listen in while he was doing deals on the telephone.

My first job was to escort a Russian dance company for three weeks at the Royal Albert Hall and five weeks on tour. I also travelled with the Red Navy Choir - three coachloads of sailors - on an interminable tour all round the country. Then there was a ballet season at the Festival Hall with dancers from the Bolshoi. I didn't speak Russian, but I soon picked up a few useful phrases, such as the Russian for "Three bells to curtain up" and "Time to start." I learned a few naughty words in Russian as well.

Working for Victor was a tremendous lesson in being at the sharp end of things. Touring the country at 18 with 120 sailors and being the guy who had to make all the decisions on the spot was a very good learning curve.

Diplomacy was an important part of the job. This was in the mid-Sixties whe the artists on tours realised that life in the West was much better than they had been led to believe. They knew that I knew that they knew that Communism wasn't as great as the Russian government claimed.

As well as the tours, I looked after a few Sunday evening concerts at the Royal Albert Hall for him. We had Sir Malcolm Sargent there one Sunday at the time when Churchill was very ill and Sargent kept coming off after each movement of the symphony to see if there was any news. He had the slow movement of the Eroica standing by to play as a tribute if the old guy passed on during the concert.

I was with him less than a year, which was quite a long time: I remember we had five secretaries in a week once. I left because I wanted to move on and soon afterwards, when I was 20, I started my own business and never looked back - although my late mother always hoped I'd get a proper job one day.

I didn't set up in opposition: when I started I was putting on very small scale concerts with three or four singers and a pianist going round the country doing Gilbert and Sullivan and Viennese evenings. It was only later, when I started to promote in London, that there was any kind of rivalry, although I never regarded it as such. I learned more from Victor than I did from any teacher at school.

Raymond Gubbay was talking to Pamela Coleman


1964 Goes to work forVictor Hochhauser 1966 Starts his own business, presenting small concerts 1968 First London promotion: Donald Swann at the newly opened Queen Elizabeth Hall 1975 First Royal Albert Hall promotion: Johann Strauss 150th anniversary concerts 1982 Opening of the Barbican, promotes 50 concerts first year; 1,200 since 1991 Royal Opera performs Turandot at Wembley Arena 1996 Royal Albert Hallcentenary production of La Boheme in the round 2000 Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall Feb 23 D'Oyly Carte Opera HMS Pinafore opens at Savoy Theatre (runs until April 1).

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