If it has a keyboard, Layton James has probably played it in his 41 years with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Harpsichord, piano, organ, celesta -- all have sung to his touch.

But James (known universally as Skip) has also been a force away from the keyboard. A prolific composer -- the only SPCO player whose music the ensemble has commissioned and performed -- he's made arrangements for the orchestra, written cadenzas for colleagues and created an entire liturgical repertoire for his congregation (Bethel Lutheran Church in Hudson, Wis., where he remains music director). He's been a conductor, lecturer and fundraiser. He's built three harpsichords during his tenure and spent countless hours tuning them.

The orchestra's longest-serving principal player, James, 69, retires after this weekend's concerts (though he'll continue to offer his inimitable pre-concert talks). We spoke last week in a St. Paul cafe.

Q How did you get your nickname?

A My father and I had the same name. My mother called him Layton and needed something different to call me. One day my dad came home on leave -- he was in the Navy during World War II -- and found me in a playpen in the front yard. "He looks exactly like the skipper of my ship," said my dad. So I became Skipper.

Q Was the SPCO your first real job?

A No. After studying with [musicologist Donald] Grout at Cornell -- I never went to a conservatory -- I had a job for a year at the University of Hawaii. Then I went to Stanford, where I was assistant conductor of the opera workshop. Meanwhile, my violin-playing office mate from Honolulu had gone off to be assistant principal of this new St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and he convinced the conductor, Leopold Sipe, to hire me as the keyboard player. I turned him down four times before saying yes.

Q What's changed in the musical world since you joined the orchestra?

A One of the huge changes is the digital revolution in how we share music. It used to be that you got paid big bucks for a recording, you got residuals -- and that was a considerable source of income. Now we do recordings and give them away, and nobody gets paid extra. We're being led by the rock bands -- and I think that's the right model. There's no way we can restrict music to just the people who buy tickets. I think the chamber orchestra should stream all its concerts live on the Internet. That can only make more friends for us.

I've had a wonderful run with the SPCO. But I'm done with the idea that music is written by a few dead white guys who need to be approached with religious fervor. It's like trying to preserve the past forever, and I'm not sure there's a future for that. More and more people are listening to hip-hop, world music, film scores -- all sorts of stuff that isn't played in concert halls.

I think a lot of classical music has lost touch with its audience. Most classical musicians can only play what's written on the page -- that's the way they've been trained. I'm an improviser. I make music instantly, with no sacred text. It's something I've always been very passionate about.

Q Every performer has had at least a few horrific moments. Is there one that haunts you? A I remember a performance with [conductor] Robert Shaw. I was vain enough to be playing "Messiah" without the score. I forgot where I was, and gave a pitch to the singer that was a whole step too high. I realized my mistake at once, and did what I think was a semi-graceful improvisation, with my face glowing red, to get back to the pitch I should have played. And Shaw was sitting there on the podium, chuckling. That's about as bad as it's been.

Q How about the opposite sort of moment -- a sublime one? A There was a performance, again with Shaw, by [contralto] Florence Kopleff, who was singing the Agnus Dei from Bach's B-minor Mass for the last time. I played continuo for that, and I thought that was about as sublime as it could be. She had severe diabetes, and was taken to a nursing home soon after. But what a voice!

Q You've played under hundreds of conductors. What do the best ones do that the lesser ones don't?

A The SPCO has saved so many conductors from bitter embarrassment over the years, you could write a book about it. The best conductors get in the way only when they have to. They realize they have really good musicians and encourage them to listen to each other.

Q Describe the Twin Cities as a musical environment, a place to make a career.

A It's fabulous. You've got an early-music group, singers all over the place, the wonderful Schubert Club with its [Indonesian] gamelan and instrument collection, a great symphony and a great chamber orchestra. A lot of people who retire want to go somewhere else. I have no plans to move.

Q You have quite a reputation as a fly fisherman. Do fishing and music complement each other?

A They do. The brainpower you need to be a successful fly fisherman is very much what you need to be a good chamber musician. You need to be aware of your surroundings.

Q Who's your favorite composer?

A Bach. No piece of his is done until all its possibilities have been shown. He's always an inspiration.

Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.