Forty years: not many conductors spend that long at the helm of the same orchestra. But Paul Davies has been in charge of the Oxford Concerto Orchestra ever since he founded it the best part of half a century ago.

“We got together one Saturday afternoon in Kidlington Baptist Church,” Paul told me. “I charged people five shillings for the privilege of coming, which disgusted one or two of them. They said: ‘fancy having to pay to come and torture yourself!’ “There must have been about ten of them, I should think. The wife of Mike Henderson, an early Radio Oxford presenter, was a terrific supporter: she played the cello, and came to look after our other cellists. That first afternoon was so successful that I thought we must do it more often. I had no ideas at all about how long the orchestra would last. It was quite difficult to get music in the early days, and one of the things that put us on our feet was a grant of £40 from the Musicians’ Union.

“That made a difference, because at that time you could get a lot of music for £40: we’ve still got a lot of those scores.”

From the beginning, the orchestra had a special purpose: to give its members the opportunity to play the solo part in a concerto.

“I’ve always thought that building up confidence is something very important in young players,” Paul explained. “By and large, the confidence with which you tackle something depends on the number of times you’ve done it successfully before. So the more solo playing an orchestral player gets, the better. Most of my pupils go through concertos by composers like Vivaldi and Corelli, so we did these concertos with the inevitable piano, and I just thought one day: ‘these people could accompany one another in an orchestra’.

The orchestra numbers some 20 string players and a harpsichord, with wind players added as required. Recruits are usually drawn from local youth orchestras – 17-year-old violinist and Oxford High School pupil Michelle Parker, for instance.

“No other orchestra would be able to give me the opportunity to solo in a concerto,” Michelle said. “I’ve done a couple on the violin, and one on the piano as well. I’ve enjoyed being with the orchestra, it’s been really fun, and you get to know lots of other people from different schools. Quite a number of my friends in the orchestra have gone on to become professional musicians. I was debating about it a couple of years ago, but maths has always been my favourite subject. I’ll go on playing as an amateur though, I’ll probably end up doing it all my life.”

Michelle also leads the County Youth Orchestra, where, even as leader, there’s safety in numbers. Isn’t standing out in front, playing a solo, a lot more nerve-racking?

“Everyone gets nervous when it’s a solo. But standing up in front of your friends is much more traumatising than playing for, say, other people’s parents, who you don’t really know.”

Talking to Paul Davies, he struck me as a benign character, not the sort of conductor who throws tantrums on the podium. True? Amid much laughter, he replied: “Oh, very! I’ve never had to say: ‘Come on, pull your socks up, you can do better than that’. Michelle, do I get cross? Well, not with her anyway!”

Now, after 40 years, Paul has decided to retire as director of the orchestra, so the hunt is on for a successor. Among those leading the search is Sarah Coatsworth, who has assisted him for the last five years: she is also a former member of the orchestra herself. I asked her who would fit the bill.

“We need someone with huge enthusiasm. We also need someone who has their finger on the pulse of what is going on in local schools: potential players are selected by invitation – they do an audition, but they are sourced from the best teachers and orchestras locally.” “Somebody who makes the players happy,” Paul added. “Certainly a string player: so much depends, with violinists and viola players in particular, on what part of the bow you’re in. You cannot play certain passages and styles in the wrong part of the bow. Nobody can. So often the conductor doesn’t realise what is wrong.”

Further details of the Oxford Concerto Orchestra can be obtained from Paul Davies at