Promotion from double bass player to conductor in one evening might sound like a Cinderella story, but that’s what happened to Geoff Bushell — and he’s been enthusiastically wielding the baton for St Giles Orchestra ever since.

“The conductor hadn’t turned up to a rehearsal,” he recalls, “and when somebody went to phone him up it turned he that he had decided he no longer wanted to be the conductor but hadn’t told anybody! For reasons that I still don’t understand, one of the founder members of the orchestra turned to me and said, ‘Geoff, would you like to conduct?’ If I’m honest, I’d always had a secret ambition to conduct, but didn’t have the skills, so I said I’d see what I could do. That was 27 years ago!”

The orchestra was founded in 1980 by Nicholas Hooper, a guitarist and composer who has since written scores for Channel 4 documentaries and for Harry Potter films. Known then as the South Oxford Orchestra, it opened on June 28, with tickets priced at just £1. Today they cost a bit more than that, but the increase is justified. The orchestra has expanded from a membership of just 11 players to a healthy 54, and Geoff has completed a four-year conducting course, which has enabled him to take the orchestra to new levels.

“The technical standard has improved significantly over the years, which has meant that we can tackle increasingly difficult repertoire,” he says. “There are some pieces that I never thought we’d be ready to play, and we have done them.”

The orchestra has covered much of the popular classical repertoire over the years, and Geoff measures possible audience appeal of pieces by using the Classic FM Top 300 as a benchmark.

But he likes to explore less familiar territory as well. “It’s nice to do something a bit different from time to time. I’m a fan of the late Romantic repertoire, so occasionally I offer the orchestra one of these pieces, and we slot it into an otherwise popular programme. So not only do the players get a chance to do something they wouldn’t have done, we can also bring something new to the audience. I like to improve things — I’m always feeling that there’s something better one can do, and I’m always slightly dissatisfied with the status quo. I think that’s a helpful attitude to have as a conductor, because you can motivate the orchestra, to achieve more than it thought it was capable of achieving. You can motivate players to go away and work on the difficult bits, and come together on a Thursday evening and really make some nice sounds.”

Hopefully the orchestra will be making nice sounds on Saturday, with its nightingale-themed concert of vocal showpieces, featuring soprano Yukiko Ishida, a music teacher based in Philadelphia. Among songs by Bax, Alabiev, Saint Saëns, Granados and Johann Strauss, as well as Smetana’s stirring Ma Vlast, will be the world premiere of Geoff’s own piece, The Nightingale, which he wrote for Yukiko. The Japanese-born singer’s involvement with the orchestra came about by chance. “Some time I ago I wanted to do Gliére’s Concerto for Colaratura Soprano, which is a very demanding piece for a singer, and needs a very high register, which many singers don’t have. I put an advert on our website, and I got an email from Yukiko, who was researching for her own performance of this piece in Philadelphia, and said that if we ever needed a soloist for this she’d be very interested.

“We can’t afford to pay people’s air fares, but she was prepared to do that herself, and the result was that she came all the way from Philadelphia to do that concert. We got on well with her, and she’s been back since for another concert. She has a wonderful voice.”

Looking ahead the orchestra has a Last Night of the Proms at the Cornerstone in Didcot, on November 6 and 7. “It’s extremely popular with the audience and enjoyable for the orchestra,” says Geoff. “I hope there’ll be some audience participation in singing Land of Hope and Glory and all those other favourites. We’re currently planning our purchase of Union Jack flags!”

Ultimately, Geoff believes his job is all about striving for what’s best for everyone. “I’ve tried to create an environment where everyone is getting what they want from it. We want to do things that are enjoyable for the audience and rewarding for the players. We can’t always keep everyone happy, but at least we think about it, and I think that’s important.”

The Nightingale Sings, featuring soprano Yukiko Ishida, is at St Andrew’s Church, Linton Road, on Saturday. Tickets on the door or from 01793 486870. To find out more about St Giles Orchestra, visit