My Google search for orchestra news has turned up a large number of articles on the retirement of Boston Symphony principal harp Ann Hobson Pilot. It’s a newsworthy event; I believe she was the first African-American principal player in a major American orchestra, and one of the first African-Americans in any American orchestra at all.
But I wanted to highlight another remarkable upcoming retirement that got far less press; that of the keyboardist for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Layton James.
Skip (as he is known to everyone who knows him; those that don’t tend to call him “James Layton”) was another “first” - the first (and perhaps only) musician to be a full-time continuo player with an American orchestra. Although his title is “principal keyboard,” and he has done distinguished work in a remarkably wide range of music for the SPCO on piano and organ as well (including on a performance of Appalachian Spring that was the first classical digital recording ever released), what’s made Skip’s contribution unique has been his work as the orchestra’s continuo specialist.
A chamber orchestra, by its nature, is going do to a lot of baroque and classical-period music. If it’s going to do it right, it will need someone who really understands the role of the continuo. Skip does. He’s probably the only musician listed in the ICSOM Directory who gets to improvise on a daily basis. He did so in everything in music up to and including Haydn symphonies. And he did it on harpsichords that he built for the SPCO, being a professional-level woodworker (something that always worried me when I saw just how many sharp tools he had in his workshop.) I remember one harpsichord we used to tour with in the SPCO that, for ease of handling, he’d built with folding ironing board legs instead of a more conventional set-up; it could be put away on its roller board (probably another of Skip’s creations) almost before everyone had left the stage. Timpani and basses should be so easy to move.
I remember lots of Skip’s work (as well as some performances we did together outside of the orchestra, including the Hindemith Op. 11 viola sonata). His performance of the cadenza in the Brandenburg #5 was about as definitive as a performance of Bach could be. But Skip is remarkable in other ways; he may be, for example, the only American orchestra musician to have been drafted by an NFL team out of college (he was cut in training camp, although not before tackling Y.A. Tittle in an exhibition game.) I played touch football with him one on a cold November afternoon in Lake Wobegon country on tour; trying to get by Skip on a football field was like running into a very gentle brick wall.
There are lots of wonderful stories about Skip. The one I remember most vividly was the time that Karl Richter came to conduct the SPCO. We were, if I recall correctly, doing a Handel concerto grosso when Skip raised his hand after Richter stopped to correct something and asked him about a “solo” marking in the cello part that Skip suspected meant section solo rather than solo solo. Richter pulled out his magnifying glass, got his nose down into the score, straightened up, put away his magnifying glass, and said “Ja - but what business is that of the cembalist?” Long silence.
What Richter didn’t know, and what Skip was far too polite to tell him, was that, in the SPCO, being the orchestra’s resident musicologist and tender of the baroque flame was indeed part of his job. It’s hard to imagine the SPCO without him.