The man behind the NSO
On Sunday, the last of this season’s Norfolk Symphony Orchestra concerts will be sounding out at King’s Lynn’s Corn Exchange. But what makes the director of the orchestra tick?
James Stobart came out of retirement to take over as musical director of the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, or NSO.
It is now nearing the end of its 12th season with Mr Stobart at the helm and, thanks to him, is now one of the best amateur orchestras in the country.
This makes it all the more surprising that Mr Stobart, 69, who now lives in a former coastguard cottage, started his working life as a telecoms engineer.
“I left school aged 16 having failed all my exams and worked as a tele-communications engineer for four years.
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“But then I met someone keen on music and they got me interested.
“I went back and did my A levels in music and at college I started my own orchestra.
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“We toured Europe and did a lot of other things.
“These things happen in life. You meet someone who changes direction for you.”
Although he was brought up with the Salvation Army - an organisation known for its music - the college orchestra changed everything and led to work with professional orchestras including the Philharmonia, London Symphony, BBC Concert, Guildford Philharmonic, American Symphony and Atlantic Symphony and has conducted music for films and television.
He has also put a lot of time back into the music world by spending time training young musicians, for instance at the Guildhall School of Music, Royal Academy of Music and the Birmingham Conservatoire.
But a few years ago, he chose to enjoy a more leisurely approach to life and moved with his wife, Judy, to his cottage in Holbeach where he could better indulge a wealth of hobbies including botany, computing and mushroom identification and collecting.
And, of course, to lead the NSO from obscurity to the popular classical orchestra it is now.
“I came to South Lincolnshire for a happy retirement but I was persuaded to take the orchestra on.
“It was moribund. It was very small and lacking ambition. They once played to just five people in Thetford.
“It was pretty down and now it is one of the leading orchestras in the country.
“We had a vision that we could do something with it - and for the area - that people could be proud of. And it is being ambitious and setting high standards.
“We also had the great fortune that the Corn Exchange in King's Lynn was renovated so that we had a great venue to play in.”
The reward for him, with an amateur orchestra, is seeing the players achieve things they thought they would not be able to.
And although his recordings of the Locke Brass Consort and London Collegiate Brass have consistently won the highest praise around the world, he is not to be drawn on a favourite composer - or even a preferred style.
“I enjoy conducting almost anything. There is such a huge repertoire of music to chose from. I try with our concerts, over the season to give a balanced view of what is in the repertoire, not just the old favourites.
“And because of that we have moved the audience on quite a long way from when we started.
“We played a Bartok piece to a sell out audience, which was quite an achievement. And the Britten we are playing on Sunday will be very new to people in Lynn.”
And although he lives in south Lincolnshire, much of his time is spent in Norfolk. “I cannot imagine wanting to be anywhere else. It is quiet, the people are friendly and you get some wonderful skies.
“It is terribly isolated at the cottage but beautiful.”
There, with the sea just 400 metres away, he can pursue his hobby as a botanist as well as having a home to come back to from travelling in his camper van.
And the musical man has also returned to his engineering roots and even dabbles in a bit of computer building.
Sunday's concert by the NSO is at the Corn Exchange at 3.30pm and will feature the Sea Interludes from
Britten's opera Peter Grimes, Schumann's Piano Concerto and Sibelius's First Symphony. Tickets are £8 and £12, available at the Corn Exchange on 01553 764864 and Downham Market's Station Café. Visit the NSO website at