Making music at the Met

James Luxton in profile

Should any of the girl choristers under his charge ever struggle with butterflies, James Luxton would not be lacking in empathy. After all, James, assistant director of music at the Metropolitan Cathedral, knows all about nerves, as a tale from his time playing the organ at Oscott College underlines.

He recalls: "I'd been playing there a couple of years and one day they said, 'James, we need an organist for something,' and I said, 'OK, what is it?'. They said, 'You know the Pope is coming?'" It was Pope Benedict XVI's 2010 visit to these shores. James was 22. "It was quite stressful," he adds, "as there are quite a few variables with live TV and with loads of organists tuning in and thinking, 'Can James play?'. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience but at the end of it I was quite relieved.

"I didn't actually get to meet him. I did run out of the chapel after I'd finished playing but his car had already driven away. And then I remembered I couldn't run because of the marksmen in the helicopters!"

Back then, James had just graduated from the Birmingham Conservatoire with a first class degree in music. What followed was a spell working as sub-assistant organist at Worcester Cathedral before, in 2014, this Dudley native headed north to Liverpool. "I feel I've done Liverpool and Worcester the wrong way round," the 28-year-old smiles. "Liverpool is a vibrant city that demands a very energetic pace of life, whereas people go to Worcester to retire. It's an ancient cathedral and there's a modern one here. It was like stepping into a parallel universe! And it's a fantastic building here with what the acoustics do to the music we make."

It is not just the acoustics that are different to his Black Country ears. "Occasionally when the kids are singing you'll hear things and think, 'Oh, that's a bit Scouse", but actually it's quite close to Latin – some of the vowels are better," explains James, whose main responsibility as assistant director of music is directing the girl choristers and the youth choir.

He is now busy helping director of music Chris McElroy with the musical preparations for the Cathedral's 50th anniversary celebrations. "We are pulling out the stops," he says, no pun intended. The Cathedral choir spent three evenings in February recording a special Golden Jubilee CD and he elaborates: "The CD is going to feature music that means something to the Cathedral – for example, Abide With Me, which was sung at the special Mass the day after Hillsborough in 1989, our 'own' hymn Hail Redeemer, King Divine and others that were sung at other significant events over the past 50 years."

It will include also a specially commissioned piece for the anniversary, a Te Deum by Colin Mawby, once the master of music at Westminster Cathedral. This is not the only original piece we will hear either, with a Congregational Mass by Philip Duffy, the Cathedral's former master of music, also in the offing. The summer, meanwhile, will bring a series of celebrity organ recitals.

James goes on: "One is Johann Vexo from Notre Dame in Paris. We've also got Martin Baker, master of music at Westminster Cathedral, coming and Ian Tracey, Liverpool city organist. I don't know if he often gets to play at our place!" The fourth recital will be by James himself – or "some lad from Dudley" as he puts it. "A bit of an anti-climax," he adds self-deprecatingly, though if it's good enough for a Pope, it will surely do for us too.