St Cecilia Orchestra

Ripon’s renowned St Cecilia Orchestra is much more than just an orchestra.
At its most spectacular it is an exceptionally fine and very large symphony orchestra, often working with top class international soloists and capable of giving high-quality performances


Concert Reviews

St Cecilia Yorkshire Dales Christmas Spectacular

In a break with tradition St Cecilia Orchestra’s Christmas Spectacular took place this year on 17 December not in Ripon Cathedral but in the exciting new venue of Tennant’s, Leyburn. In the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, this proved to be a brilliant move.  A large and enthusiastic audience almost filled the beautiful Garden Room to hear North Yorkshire’s renowned Symphony Orchestra with their guests Wensleydale School Choir, Leyburn Ladies’ Choir and the Janet Seymour School of Dance.

The evening was compered by someone of whom you may not have heard, retired Dales Vet Jim Wight. You will, however, certainly know of his father, the much loved Vet and author, James Herriot. Jim was a mine of information with anecdotes and witty little stories about his father and the real people who came to life in his books.

Under the distinguished baton of Xenophon Kelsey, the Orchestra Founder and Conductor, St Cecilia embarked on a delightful concert of carols and seasonal music.  Starting the evening in the most traditional way, chorister Tom Hughes sang the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, his lovely treble voice promising the delights to come. Audience participation in all the carols was encouraged by way of the printed words in the programme, including Jingle Bells, which for some unexplained reason most people know only the chorus, not the three verses.

Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld Overture kicked off to a flying start, kicked off being the operative words as a troupe of  the best Can Can dancers outside the Folies Bergere burst on to the scene. Difficult to say who enjoyed the performance most, musicians, dancers or audience.

The Ladies’ Choir was in fine form, particularly in their  performance of John Rutter’s Angels’ Carol. Such a pleasure to hear a new work so beautifully sung. Wensleydale School Choir, under their Conductor Joshua Hadfield, also showed the choral tradition is alive and well.  Lovely singing with beautiful clear diction, especially in the hitherto unfamiliar but gem of a Dutch folk song, Carol of the Elves.

More carols, dancing, two movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and the Johann Strauss’ delightful Polka Im Krapfenwald’l including cuckoo, nightingale and duck. A wonderful fun packed evening complete with exciting live charity auction conducted by Rodney Tennant himself.

The audience loved it from start to finish.

REVIEW: Spectacular Christmas cracker of a show lives up to its billing

A Christmas spectacular was promised and delivered as Ripon’s St Cecilia Orchestra took their audience on a journey of surprises and musical delights – which at this time of year can be a tricky enterprise.

Packed as it is with carols and concerts in schools and churches and village halls, December can all too easily become a byword for musical as well as dietary overload.

And as the “real” meaning of Christmas, a celebration of God coming to earth in human form, is reinterpreted nationwide as a commercial spendfest, it’s hard for any enterprise to keep the balance between the sacred and the secular.

But with a clever mix of inspiring orchestral pieces, dances and choral singing, this lovely concert successfully blurred the edges between the two: traditional carols with not even a nod to political correctness (“goodwill henceforth from heaven to man,” a shining example) and jolly dances from the talented students of the Janet Seymour School of Theatre Dance.

If you can also pack a can-can, a moody tango and a series of James Herriot jokes into a two-hour festive entertainment, you know you’ve hit the spot.

At least two members of the Wensleydale School choir had to be shepherded off the stage to join their fellow dancers for three totally contrasting routines performed with grace and vigour: the classic can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld Overture, the delicate Dance of the Mirlitons from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and the world premiere of John B Sullivan’s Lazy Tango for Christmas – and all, as one audience member noted with admiration, on a carpeted floor.

All credit, too, to ten-year-old Thomas Hughes of Ripon for his crystal clear treble solos in three carols – Once in Royal David’s City, In the Bleak Midwinter and Silent Night – steadfastly holding his own against the powerful strains of the orchestra.

Conductor Xenophon Kelsey is to be congratulated for presenting a lively, fast-paced programme that managed both to embody the true spirit of the season and dispense the gloom of a winter’s afternoon.

One of the great strengths of the St Cecilia Orchestra lies in its mix of amateur and professional musicians, teachers and students from all over the north, usually meeting, as the programme notes point out, for just two days of intensive rehearsals before each concert, and exuding a real pride and delight in the music they make.

The orchestra’s commitment to, and encouragement of, young musicians and singers, was in evidence throughout. As one proud mother of a school choir member remarked: “What an amazing opportunity for them to be able to perform with an orchestra of this quality.” A sentiment echoed, no doubt, by the members of Leyburn Ladies Choir whose Angels’ Carol by John Rutter (“the composer who owns Christmas,” says the New York Times), was a highlight among many.

The concert was compered with a nice lightness of touch by Jim Wight, son of Alf Wight, aka James Herriot. His father, said Jim, would have been “very proud” to have his name associated with an evening of such splendid musical entertainment.  Alf’s own father worked in the shipyards of Glasgow by day and was a concert pianist by night, and his mother was a professional singer.

If there is any criticism it is only that the venue, the Garden Rooms at Tennants in Leyburn, grand though the setting may be for other events, somehow lacked atmosphere. In a relatively harsh and featureless environment, the lighting needs to be warmer, and more mellow. How to achieve that while allowing the audience full participation in the carols is a matter for a greater mind than mine, but that shouldn’t be hard to find.

One more thing: we should have been allowed to stand for the carols – you cannot sing Hark the Herald Angels from a chair – and we should not have had to plough through muddy puddles in the unsurfaced car park at the end of such a superb evening. That, too, needs sorting.

Betsy Everett

Richmondshire Today

Superb Gala Concert by St Cecilia Orchestra

21 October 2017

Ripon's own symphony orchestra does not shy from climbing mountains and Xen Kelsy MBE, conductor and musical director, tackled two of the greats of music compositions for the gala concert, Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde and Beethoven's symphony No. 9 the Choral Symphony.
                In front of a full house at Ripon Cathedral, the orchestra was in top form putting on a superb performance.  All the strengths of this fine orchestra were evident in the opening peice - Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod (Love and Death) from Tristan and Isolde.  I doubt there was metaphorically a dry eye in the audience.
                The second half was devoted to one of the finest compositions ever written - Beethoven's symphony No. 9 - and for this 'choral symphony' the audience were treated to the impressive Cleveland Philharmonic Choir and chorus master John Forsyth MBE.
                The soloists were superb - soprano Ilona Domnich (pictured), who was born in Russia and has a fabulous soprano, English Mezzo soprano Kezia Blenik, Welsh tenor Elgan Thomas, and English Samuel Pantcheff, baritone.  When the chorus and soloists enter the fray in the final movement, well...
                Judging by the prolonged applause at the end, the audience felt exactly the same.


Ripon's concert of the year was an outstanding success. A virtual sell out,  the almost capacity audience enjoyed an evening of brilliant music making. under the baton of Xenophon Kelsey, St Cecilia founder and conductor.

The brief first half of the evening was the somewhat brief Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, but what a delight that proved to be. A sensitive and virtuoso performance of this most evocative of pieces. A somewhat lengthier interval than usual was much appreciated by performers and audience alike. Plenty of time to chat and socialise which served to add to the mounting tension in anticipation of the second half, Beethoven's sublime Choral Symphony. Although well known, perhaps not so frequently performed due to the large forces needed; full orchestra, choir and four soloists. 

St Cecilia was in fine form, performing one of Beethoven's greatest works to a standard worthy of any professional orchestra. Well complemented in the final movement by the Cleveland Philharmonic Choir and four outstanding young soloists, the rendition of Schiller's Ode to Joy was indeed a privilege to hear. If it seemed familiar, it is of the course the anthem of the European Union, to which music making in Ripon and beyond is indebted. In his immortal final symphony, Beethoven expressed the wish that Alle Menschen werden Brueder, All men will be brothers. From the wildly enthusiastic applause, one can hope the audience thought the same way.

Conductor:  Xenophon Kelsey

Spectacle, dance, lyricism and colour filled Ripon Cathedral in Saturday’s thrilling concert by the St Cecilia Orchestra. The orchestra began life accompanying the cathedral choir in the annual St Cecilia’s Day concerts in the 1990’s and the players enjoyed it so much they came back for more. Today the StCO has grown to be one of the UK’s finest community orchestras under the baton of the inspirational Yorkshireman, Xenophon Kelsey.

In an excellent programme, Stokowski’s 1927 orchestral take on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue began the evening. It’s a fantasy, by turns dramatic, lugubrious and dazzling; it’s how organists used to play it years ago before they got too well-behaved. It was an excellent curtain-raiser for Resphigi’s Church Windows. This is film music before films regularly had music, flamboyant, energetic, stylish and romantic, Liszt and Mussorgsky with Italian panache. In the opening and middle movements Xen Kelsey coaxed a wonderfully lush pianissimo from the string section and a hushed piano from the basses. Exotic arabesques from the winds and rich smooth chords from the horns punctuated by glittering harps revealed the masterful orchestration. The sheer power of the 90-strong ensemble was released in the finale with a battery of brass and percussion in increasing cascades of sound, building to the thunderous entry of the cathedral organ with its majestic Spanish Trumpet; a gargantuan end to the first half.

After the interval came a persuasive account of Max Bruch’s rarely heard Double Concerto for Clarinet & Viola: this was a real treat. Beautiful and agile playing from clarinettist Linda Merrick and lyrical expressiveness from violist Katie Stables made this a superb choice for the evening.  Katie was making a welcome return to her birthplace and is one of many musicians supported by the St Cecilia Orchestra over the years. Both soloists and orchestra seemed utterly at ease with the generous warm-hearted nature of this lovely work which deserves to be performed more often.

After the luxurious Bruch came a joyous conclusion in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Here was a real orchestral work out; the sheer energy and rhythmic complexity were brilliantly handled before subsiding into a ravishing ending.

Adrian Hawkins


Cellist Toby in magnificent form


St Cecilia Orchestra
Holy Trinity Church

By George Pyman

The St Cecilia Orchestra’s Spring concert was held at the Holy Trinity Church in Ripon. This is an excellent venue where thought has been given to combining acts of worship and the ability to provide a venue for the people of Ripon and district to enjoy musical performances.

Excellent facilities, comfortable seating, café meeting area in the crypt and a lift for those who have poor mobility.

The concert was an eclectic mix of composers from Haydn, Sibelius through to Prokofiev and Schostakovich. As always the St Cecilia Orchestra is made up of a mix of amateur and professional musicians which is their core strength because there is always such a strong pool to draw from; not forgetting their Director of music and conductor, Xen Kelsey without whom there would be no St Cecilia Orchestra.

First off we had Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1, The Classical Symphony — this is one of his most popular and favorite works, said to be loosely based on Haydn’s style.

The first movement lived up to its title of Allegro full blast. The orchestra took a moment to gather itself but was quickly up to their normal top class skills. The second movement was full of pizzicato, the third movement is the one we most often hear on Classic FM, delightful. The woodwind were top notch in the Finale.

Next was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, and tonight’s soloist was Toby White. Toby is a Riponian, his mother Liz White is a regular player in the St Cecilia Orchestra.

What a performance of this viciously difficult and complicated composition. It runs for 28 minutes and every moment is full of fierce and sudden strokes with the timpani erupting like explosions.

Toby started to play the cello aged five and he’s obviously moved since then. I loved it and so did the audience. Must not forget the St Cecilia Orchestra which had equally complex music to tackle!

After the interval we enjoyed Sibelius’s Romance for Strings — a complete contrast to Shostakovich’s assault on our senses.

Written in 1915 it was the second of four short pieces and pleasant to the ear. The finale for the evening was Haydn’s Symphony No 99 in E flat.

I thought I knew most of Haydn’s London Symphonies, but this slipped by me. Haydn’s music is always tuneful and No 99 was no except ion; the first movement the theme is repeated with many variations, the Adagio is a delight with its musicality, the Menuetto is as its name describes and is mostly in waltz time. Finale Vivace is boisterous and energetic.

A wonderful evening of music making. Toby White is a name to watch out for, a magnificent performance.