James Clinch (1927-2017)

February 8, 2017 Jerome Sadler 1 comment

I had a sad trip to Newcastle on the 24th January to attend the funeral of a very important figure in the history of the CRSO. Many people in our audience will remember James (“Jimmy”) Clinch, who founded the orchestra (in its first guise as Rochester Arts Orchestra, the “RAO”) in 1969 with Bill Holtby and conducted it until the mid-1990s. James is still remembered vividly by many members of the orchestra today, too; about 25% of our current members played under him. I never performed with James, but he was, without knowing it, very much a part of my musical upbringing. I remember going to RAO concerts regularly when I was growing up; these events gave a keen musical teenager the wonderful opportunity to hear many symphonic works in concert for the first time. James died on Thursday 12th January at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle; he was 89. 

James Clinch Funeral Service January 2017
James Clinch Funeral Service January 2017

James’s funeral service was beautiful and gave a sense of the joy and meaning which he brought to so many people in Medway and beyond though his entrepreneurial spirit in founding and growing the RAO, his work as a teacher at Maidstone Grammar, and so many other things. James’s family was dignified and thoughtful throughout; I found their fortitude, at the most difficult time, very moving. We are dedicating our next concert to James’s memory, and I wanted to bring together some thoughts about James in this blog post.

The following mini-biography of James is taken from the programme notes to an RAO concert on 26th February 1977; the first time the orchestra played in the Central Hall (or Central Theatre as it is known today) in Chatham. It gives us a sense of the courage and dedication which James and his colleagues had in building up the orchestra.

“James Clinch was born in Maidstone and educated at the Grammar School where he now teaches chemistry. A good musical tradition at school and oboe lessons from a fine local player, Leslie Smith, laid the foundations of a life-long interest in music-making, both as a player and conductor. After graduating from Cambridge in 1951, he worked as an industrial chemist in Ilford, Essex, and then in Avonmouth, Bristol. His first post as a conductor was in 1961 with the Bristol Light Orchestra. Moving back to Maidstone in 1964 broke this connection and opportunities to conduct were limited until William Holtby, sensing the need for a first-class amateur orchestra in the Medway Towns brought together a band of dedicated string players to for Rochester Arts Orchestra in 1969. Since those days the orchestra has gained in strength, size and ambition. From concerts featuring only works for strings it was a short step to engaging wind players for concerts only and then inviting local players to come and rehearse as permanent members… The orchestra has progressed from playing concerts in church halls to churches, from school halls to the Cathedral, and today it tries to reach a wider audience still by playing for the first time in the Central Hall. It is a brave venture and we hope that, whilst reading this programme, you will be able to look around you and see a well-filled auditorium…”

James Clinch conducting in rehearsal early 1970s
James Clinch conducting in rehearsal early 1970s


In May 1995, on the occasion of James’s retirement concert, Martin Dale (long time member of the RAO, and Chairman of the orchestra) wrote a long, heartfelt appreciation of James Clinch. It seems appropriate to quote it here:

James Clinch Retirement Concert 1995
James Clinch Retirement Concert 1995

“Let me see now… It was an orchestra pit… Chatham Town Hall as it then was… a performance of ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’… In the break at dress rehearsal the first oboist, who seemed to be on Christian name terms with all of the string players, approached me in what seemed an enthusiastic and lively manner (which I now know is his way of doing everything!) and invited me to join a small, recently-formed string orchestra called Rochester Arts… 
So, a few words of appreciation of Jim as seen from an orchestral chair. Of course, there is all the waving of arms and sticks etc… and all the outward paraphernalia of the conductor. That’s necessary; it is technique and Jim has certainly always that. It is not only a gift; it takes a lot of hard work, hidden away at home learning scores and practising the movements so that all of the elements of the jigsaw can come together. Yes, there is that, and the clarity of Jim’s beat is something one can always trust. But conducting technique alone would not make people faithful to the orchestra (and some of the orchestra’s members have been there as long as Jim). Many musicians can give a beat (we all learn it as part of our music exams) but they can’t conduct. So what is it and what has it been that keeps people like me a member for so long and continually attracts new people who then stay? It is a hard question to answer, but I offer a few thoughts to which no doubt others would add an echo and more.
Well, let’s go back to that beat. You know where you are with Jim, and even if you get lost you know he’s not and that within seconds he’ll sing your part at you and set you right. So, what does that encapsulate? First, a fantastic musical ear both inner and outer, and an ability to hear the music inwardly but to live with the reality outwardly, to be able to appraise what might be wrong and put it right decisively. This engenders respect from the player, and a feeling of security.
Secondly, there’s that stunning knowledge of music that Jim carries with him. I’ve long been convinced that as an infant his parents mashed Grove’s Dictionary into his potatoes and garnished each meal with an orchestral score. We’re all convinced that he has every single note of everything Elgar wrote from memory and much more besides. Here is a man whose lively interest in, and hunger for, the very best in music leads him to have at his fingertips a breadth and depth of knowledge from which we benefit not only by way of anecdote but also, and more relevantly to us, by the fact that he brings the focus of that knowledge to the works we play. When we play Sibelius we live not in the wildness of northern wastes but experience Finnish nationalism of the earlier part of this century. With Jim in Elgar we relive the life of Edwardian Worcestershire and revisit the Three Choirs Festival.

1991 March 2nd, RAO Concert 21st year
1991 March 2nd, RAO Concert 21st year

For an orchestral player, however, even all that might not be enough. Why is it that, week after week, we have allowed him to grumble at us for sins of intonation, ensemble, technique and style? Can interpretation be the answer? Jim always knows what he wants, and, again, we can respect this knowing that it arises from years of study plus the emotions that the
music has stirred within him. The head and the heart work together in harmony, and the players respond. By way of anecdote, I’ve only had two strings break at concerts; one because of the heat in the hall, and the other because I was so inspired by the music that I think I literally dug my bow through the string. That inspiration starts, and ripples out from the conductor, who on the occasion in question was, of course, Jim.
Many will agree on a list such as the following: Jim the man who carried the orchestra in spirit during some very dark days in the 1980s; the man who has compassion for his friends; who beneath a brusque exterior is sensitive and caring; who has the entrepreneurial spirit to initiate and develop the orchestra into a full symphony orchestra through thick and thin; the man who can carry a concert and inspire.
Yet for me as a player and that is from where I write this little appreciation, there is a supreme quality above all others; although we take our lead from James I have never had to sacrifice myself or my playing. I am left free to give of my playing and to make music in the context of the orchestra as I feel and wish to. I have played with many conductors and I know that this particular quality in a conductor is a gift. Not many conductors know how to allow it let alone draw it out and let it be the music. It’s a very special quality — a prized possession — a sharing between the spirit of the player and conductor. For that, amongst the myriad of other fine things, may you be remembered, Jim, by all your friends in the body of RAO!
Thank you for a fine 25 years of stick!”
From all your friends in the orchestra.

James Clinch, RAO Conductor Nov 1969 to 1995
James Clinch, RAO Conductor Nov 1969 to 1995

1 Comment on “James Clinch (1927-2017)

  1. Very sad to hear that jimmy is no longer with us. I played in RAO under him for a few years circa 1988-1993 and it was always great fun. He was a lovely man.

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