Interview: Man behind St Cecilia’s Orchestra success

Musical director Xenophon Kelsey conducts the St Cecilia Orchestra. (Picture by Ian Hill Photography'
Musical director Xenophon Kelsey conducts the St Cecilia Orchestra. (Picture by Ian Hill Photography'

By Graham Chalmers

Like a lot of great ideas, this one started in a pub.

“Most things in those days developed in the Black Bull or the One Eyed Rat. I thought it would be good to have a small ensemble to accompany the cathedral choir at their annual St Cecilia’s Day Concert. ”

We’re talking about the early 1990s and I’m talking to Xenophon Kelsey MBE about the formation of the St Cecilia Orchestra.

I say orchestra but St Cecilia’s is only one part of conductor and musical director Xenophon’s contribution to the culture life of Ripon and beyond.

In conjunction with his partner, Jane Lomax, orchestral manager and administrator, and Dr Richard Russell, secretary, that little chat in the pub nearly 25 years ago has led to the following:

The St Cecilia Orchestra, a community orchestra recruited from professional and amateur musicians and acclaimed for its high standards of performance, big name soloists and support of young talent across the region.

The Mowbray Ensemble, a flexible group with a reputation across the north for performing rarely-heard works with an unusual combination of instruments.

The Mowbray Orchestra, the successful professional offshoot of the two groups.

Concerts and educational workshops with choral societies and schools across the district.

North Yorkshire Music and Arts Events Diary, an online service run for 50 local organisations.

And not forgeting Xen’s work with the Ripon Youth String Orchestra.

Phew! As someone who’s organised a fair few things myself, I have to say the scale of the work involved makes me feel a little ill.

Working largely without public grants, there’s so much to do, so many things to get right if the whole enterprise is to survive and prosper.

But it’s the juggling of so many elements which is the secret of St Cecilia’s success, Xen explains in the front room of his Ripon home.

“The key is flexibility. We can offer every type of musician a role. When it comes to St Cecilia’s itself, we don’t so what most other amateur orchestras do, which is to rehearse every week for eight to ten weeks in the run-up to a concert. Lots of good musicans don’t like to do that and can’t afford to, anyway. And if you’ve rehearsed 50 or 60 musicians for that length of time, it means you have to choose a programme which gives them all a chance to play.

“By not having such regular meetings, we can offer talented musicians challenging pieces, which they like. ”

Switching locations between Ripon Cathedral and Holy Trinity Church, it’s an approach which appears to be just as popular with the orchestra’s musicians as Xen says.

In the course of preparing this article, cellist Laurence Hughes tells me: “I love the fact that St Cecilia’s enables me to participate in high-level orchestral music with world class soloists.”

His wife Sarah, a flautist adds: “I studied at the Royal Academy in London but needed to get back up north for some quality of life. Though the relatively few rehearsals means you have to learn fast, it’s amazing what you achieve with this group.”

Getting the balance right between smaller pieces and ‘star’ concerts, experienced professionals and talented amateurs, artistic ambitions and the needs of audiences and sponsors can’t be easy.

In his rare quiet moments, this born and bred Riponian tends to do a bit of walking. I notice Xen’s working on a pictorial map of a charity walk for the Vacation Chamber Orchestras he did a few years ago - from Land’s End to John O’Groats!

Sitting chatting with a cup of warming Earl Grey, I also get the feeling Xen isn’t one to suffer fools gladly.

I’d be prepared to guess his singlemindedness might have attracted the odd detractor along the way.

But it takes more than a chat and a couple of pints to achieve anything worth achieving. Or talent, for that matter.

It requires a passion fierce enough not to be extinguished by hurdles and setbacks.

Both Xen and Jane originally trained as musicians. Xen was principal horn on the European Summer Schools for Young Musicians in Vienna, Saltzburg and Montreuxamong other achievements, while Jane is still a professional bassoonist and teacher.

After all these years both remain believers in the power of classical music – and the importance of doing their bit to maintain standards.

Without their steely determination, musical life in North Yorkshire would be the poorer.

Xen said: “There have been so many great moments and fabulous concerts in the last 25 years. I’m proud that we are still going strong but what I’m most proud of is being able to support so many youngsters.”

St Cecilia Orchestra’s Winter Concert, Holy Trinity Church, Ripon, January 10, 2015.