James Lobban, who died on 10th November 2006, was one of the most respected members of Aberdeen’s musical community. As teacher, performer and examiner, and as conductor of Aberdeen Bach Choir for over 35 years, his contribution to Aberdeen’s musical life was as unprecedented in longevity as it was in importance.
In school and university days, the links which were to lead James to the top of his profession were already being forged. At Aberdeen Grammar School he was in the same music class as Martin Dalby, who was to become a leading Scottish composer and who, at James’s instigation, was to receive a commission from the Bach Choir for its 30th Anniversary in 1985; as a music student at Aberdeen University, Bryan Dargie, leader of many Bach Choir orchestras, and latterly of Aberdeen Sinfonietta, was a contemporary; after teacher-training James went to Inverurie Academy as assistant to Graham Wiseman, and in December 1966 succeeded him as Principal Teacher of Music. At Graham’s suggestion he became a part-time member of the Bach Choir, which Graham was conducting at the time. James was to succeed David Murray as Conductor of the Bach Choir in 1969, when still in his twenties. In June 1976 he was appointed Principal Teacher of Music at Hazlehead Academy in Aberdeen. Having earlier become bass leader at St Machar’s Cathedral under David Murray, James was to succeed David as Organist and Choirmaster in 1981. In addition to these posts within the City, James was Principal Examiner in Music for the Scottish Education Board (now the Scottish Qualifications Authority) from 1987 to 1995. Never before had one person simultaneously held so many key musical positions both within the City and nationally.
James committed himself totally to everything in which he chose to become involved. A fine pianist, organist and accompanist, he regularly contributed to concert series in the University, at St Machar’s Cathedral and elsewhere in the City and beyond. In 1967 he undertook a Scottish Arts Council tour as accompanist to the tenor Wilfred Brown. As school teacher he had the ability to recognise the potential of each pupil, and would persevere until that was achieved, often to the surprise of the pupils themselves. He applied the same goals to his work as an examiner, poring over exam papers for long periods until they were exactly as they should be, and ensuring that each other examiner was fully briefed on the aims of each paper. There was ‘order’ in every area of James’s life – from his own immaculate appearance, to the arrangement of pens and pencils on the desk in his music room, to the tidiness of his own back garden, and in earlier days the preparation of his Boys’ Brigade uniform and cricket ‘whites’ (James was a fast bowler and played for the Grammar School FPs). Everything was ordered and in its place.
In his work with St Machar’s Cathedral Choir and with the Bach Choir he was to apply the same commitment and iron will to all that was involved – from preparing music for the weekly services at the Cathedral to planning and preparing programmes for Bach Choir concerts. And it was not just the musical matters that he dealt with; James was always fully involved in the practicalities surrounding services and concerts, and was regularly to be seen dismantling staging and directing the general tidying-up even after a full day of Cathedral services and a Bach Choir concert.
It was a source of particular sadness that the onset of James’s illness occurred during the Bach Choir’s Golden Jubilee Year, and that he was unable to conduct the long-planned-for performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in April 2006. The previous year the Choir had celebrated James’s 35th as its conductor, and in retrospect there is great thankfulness that the Choir had that opportunity to express its respect, admiration and great affection for him at that time.
In a sense, James Lobban and Aberdeen Bach Choir as we know it today ‘grew up’ together – James gradually finding his feet as Conductor and exploring the repertoire in ever-new directions, and the Choir developing its skills and gradually gaining for itself a widespread reputation. During James’s conductorship, performances were given in Elgin, Perth, Edinburgh, Stirling and Brechin as well as in Aberdeen. In his self-effacing way, James never sought the limelight for himself, but gained enormous personal satisfaction when a performance went particularly well. In rehearsals, his thoroughness and business-like approach ensured that everyone in the choir, from the ‘experienced’ to the ‘improving’, felt confident on the day of a concert and could gain the maximum enjoyment from the performance. The inimitable Tom Michie, a former President of the Choir, put it another way: ‘His chief delight is in making us sing what the composer wrote, and to discourage any ‘ad hoc’ editing on the part of members’! On arriving for a rehearsal, singers learnt to expect an intensive two hours’ work, starting precisely at 7.30pm (quick glance at James’s watch, bar number announced, and work commenced!). James did not normally indulge in idle chatter (here or anywhere else), so for the unwary the shock of realising that he had made a joke during a rehearsal could be devastating! But James mellowed over the years, and the likelihood of quickfire repartee increased considerably, to the delight of all.
James had great respect for the history of the Choir, but with an eye to the future he was also keen to encourage musicians of the younger generation. To this end, the Elizabeth Pirie Memorial Music Scholarship was set up under the auspices of the Choir, awarding grants to talented young musicians in the area, to help with tuition fees. Amongst the major hallmarks of James’s conductorship was his imaginative and innovative programme-planning, including the commissioning of several new works by contemporary composers. The fact that the Choir increased in numbers and built up a huge following bears testimony to the rightness of James’s approach. Audiences came to expect performances of an extremely high calibre from the Choir as well as orchestra (latterly the Aberdeen Sinfonietta) and soloists, and virtually every concert was sold out.
This long and fruitful association with Aberdeen Bach Choir, which is now considered amongst the finest in the country, has now, with profound sadness on the part of its members and associates, come to an end in the practical sense. However, in this and in the other areas of his musical life, James Lobban has left an outstanding musical legacy which will surely be remembered and built upon for many years to come.
10 November 2006