Ask Skip Layton James to tell stories about what he has seen during his tenure at the SPCO and he has so many it’s hard for him to know where to begin. There have been good times, and hard times. He’s worked with seven different music directors.
There were the concerts at what used to be the Arts and Science Center, later the Science Museum of Minnesota.
“Eddie Blitz, the former cellist used to come in and look at the brontosaurus there and start his day by saying “Hi Bones!” James says.
He talks about how the Orchestra used to take the train to gigs in Fargo, and the time the plane due to return the musicians home after playing in Brookings S.D. sank up to its wheel-hubs in the mud after a spring rain.
“We had to call a tractor to pull us out wheel by wheel before we could fly back to the Twin Cities,” he says.
“We played the first concert ever at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium over at St Kates. We played the opening concert at the Benedicta Arts Center in the cornfield out at the College of St Benedict. It’s a beautiful hall by the way.”
And there was the opening of the Ordway, and the unprecedented public fundraiser which saved the SPCO from financial ruin.
There will be a lot of these stories in coming months after today’s announcement that James will retire from his position of Principal Keyboard with the SPCO, a position he has held since 1969. He’s currently the longest tenured musician with the orchestra. He has conducted and composed during his time with the SPCO, creating cadenzas for Baroque and Classical concertos.
During that time he’s established a reputation as a master of many keyboard instruments, from the pipe organ to the harpsichord. He actually built three of the harpsichords the SPCO now owns.
When asked how he came to do that he describes approaching SPCO music director Leopold Sipe at a rehearsal to ask is he could play a Haydn piece.
“What are you going to play it on?” the maestro asked.
“Well, a harpsichord,” James says he replied.
“We can’t afford one,” the conductor responded.
So James said he’d build one.
“That’s kind of how it started. I’ve always loved to improvise and the harpsichord is the perfect instrument to do that on. So I start to build them.”
That was in 1970, and it’s put James in a somewhat unique position.
“Basically you’ve been hearing me on an instrument I made myself with music that I make up as I go along, which is about as enabling and ennobling and as wild as you can get as a music profession, I think,” he says.
After he steps down at the end of the current season he intends to write a book on trout fishing. He’ll also continue to appear as a presenter at pre-concert talks at the SPCO and as necessary onstage at the keyboard.