10 questions for James Gilchrist

Here is the “informal biography” from James Gilchrist’s website, and offers a much better portrait than anything I could attempt.

At the age of eight I came home from school one day and informed my parents that I was now in the local church choir, and needed to be at rehearsal every Thursday, and morning service every Sunday, thank you very much. If my parents were surprised or even annoyed, they hid it well. Our family was always surrounded by music, and I think I just assumed it was a normal thing to do. From then on, much of my vocal training has been in church choirs. I was lucky enough to sing in the choir of New College, Oxford as a boy treble, and as a tenor in that of King’s Cambridge. I think, though, that I never dreamt that I might one day earn my living through singing. It was just part of normal life – another straightforward way to communicate. Indeed, if anyone had asked me then what sort of a musician I was, I’m sure I would have (forgetting the self-derogatory terms) put my cello playing first. But I have come to realise that it’s the unique fusion of words and music that is singing that moves me beyond measure, and makes singing the essence of my musical self.

But I wanted to be a doctor. Not in a half-hearted way, but truly as a vocation, and it is only really by accident that I find myself not in medicine, but in the arts. I trained in the London Hospital, Whitechapel, very much using my singing in professional choirs both as a way of keeping me sane, but also to give me something to live off. And so, while studying and working in medicine, I sang in groups such as the Sixteen, the Tallis scholars and the Cardinall’s Musick, alongside appearing regularly in choral societies up and down the country as their tenor soloist. In retrospect, this was a wonderful training. I was learning huge quantities of repertoire, learning the importance of looking after one’s voice, and also how life was as a professional musician, while having the luxury of knowing that my life wasn’t on the line if it all went wrong.

So when I found my diary rather full of solo engagements, and having completed (and by some miracle passed) yet more medical exams (my MRCP), I went along to my consultant at the time to ask his advice. I must confess that I was terrified. He was a very well-respected nephrologist, and the job much sought-after, and I was wondering whether I might possibly have a month off. But his encouragement was immediate and whole-hearted. Go and try your hand in music and come back in a month to see how it feels. And a month has so far stretched to ten years, and I don’t think I have any regrets.

I do miss medicine, though. It’s not the sort of thing one goes into on a whim. I miss the academic challenge, the excitement of the diagnostic process, the sense of being in a team of so many different disciplines, the enormous privilege of being so intimately involved in people’s lives, and above all else the sense that one is doing something which is so manifestly useful and beneficial to your fellow human-beings. Of course, there are things I don’t miss. Not being one’s own boss, and working always to timetables and rotas. And, tellingly, the responsibility of knowing if you make a mistake that it might be someone else whose life is spoiled. I think I have found a way of life that suits me better now – I’m very much myself on stage. But I miss hospitals, and I and my family very much miss me not having a “normal” job, and having so many weekends away from home.

I was once accosted by someone after a concert in Aldeburgh, who told me I wouldn’t remember him (he was not quite right, but I certainly couldn’t place him), and telling me that he used to tell me off for humming during his operations when I was a student of surgery, and now look – he’s having to fork out a fortune to hear me! He was delighted to do so, of course, and it was an important lesson for me about why music is so valuable to us all. I believe the arts are in some profound way essential to all of us. Artistic expression and endeavour are what makes us human, and the most visceral and basic of our modes of communication. It’s glib to call music the medicine of the soul, but I think there’s some truth in that.

And in a few weeks tenor James Gilchrist will be singing with Tafelmusik as they present Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more about preparing to sing JS Bach.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Our family always made music together. Chamber music with family and friends. Oddly, never singing. But music surrounded us since I can begin to remember. I was sent away to school at quite an early age, when I became a chorister. Then it was of course singing, and that to a high standard. But I mostly just got on with it. It was just normal life.

To answer your question, though, I dare say I’m a bit of a mix of my parents. Luckily for them, neither is very much like me!

Tenor James Gilchrist

Tenor James Gilchrist

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?

The worst thing is easy: getting sick and the precariousness of vocal health. It’s horrid having to pull out of things and let people down. I’ve been lucky, and am rarely ill. But even so, I probably have to pull out of one thing a year. That, and the constant travelling. But the best things easily outweigh that. To sing is to communicate in an uncluttered and profound way. To sing makes you feel better. I hope that’s the case when people listen too! That’s the aim: to move people.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Funnily enough, I don’t listen to much recorded music. I love to go to things live. I’m like that with works I’m learning too: I rarely listen to recordings. Not sure whether that’s a good thing. One – alas rare – pleasure is the theatre.

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Too many!!!! Languages. I wish my German and French and Italian were better. But the overriding one would be a better memory for names and people: I’m spectacularly bad (drives my poor wife mad!)

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Started sailing a while ago mainly because my eldest son wanted to see whether he enjoyed it. He did and is a natural. But I can see the attraction. There’s something totally magical about gaining power and movement from the wind. Can get awfully expensive, though!


Five more about singing the tenor part of The Christmas Oratorio with Tafelmusik

1-Talk for a moment about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, especially what he writes for the tenor.

The piece is really six separate cantatas which have been bound together, so each part has it’s own “flavour” (in our performance we’re only doing five). It tells the Christmas story very straightforwardly, in simple declaimed recicative (that’s the tenor’s job), which I hope is easy to understand. But interweaving this (and making up the vast bulk of the piece) are choruses and arias for the soloists. The choruses serve two purposes: first, they’re book-ends to each cantata, being sort of concerted utterances of the hopes and fears of the congregation in Leipzig who would have been there in the eighteenth century. Second, they are active participants in the action. Much less often than in the passions, but nevertheless there in the thick of it. The arias offer a thoughtful moment to ponder on, wonder at or otherwise explore the story.

So the tenor’s job is two-fold. First, he tells the story as it unfolds. Such a familiar story of Mary travelling to Bethlehem, the birth and naming of Jesus, the shepherds, the wise men, Herod. Second, he’s occasionally (especially in the last part, part six) one of the commentators. I love this duality in the role..

2-The Christmas Oratorio combines theatre, music, and sacred texts. Please reflect for a moment, on where you place the emphasis among those three (drama, music & spirit) and how this informs your preparation & your performance.

Of course it’s a profoundly Christian and spiritual work. And I suspect Bach would be bemused to find us performing it in a concert hall. The joy and power of the story and the music, though, make it exuberantly open for anybody to enjoy. It has moments of extreme tenderness and intimacy (perhaps Mary cradling her baby and singing to him) and rousing choruses. It’s about finding good and joy in the world with us now.

3-What’s your favourite moment in the Christmas Oratorio.

One of my favourite arias is in part 2 when the commentator is urging the shepherds to hurry along to visit the child. Bach writes runs of tumbling fast notes for the tenor and the flute, which is great fun to perform. You can almost see them whizzing down the hill. And the “evangelist” role (storyteller) is such a delight and so different from the hurtful, tortured role in the passions: you can really smile your way through the work.

4-How do you adjust from one century to the next? talk about the difference between the baroque and musics of more recent centuries & styles, and how you reconcile the many different requirements placed upon your voice.

Interesting question. Do I do anything technically different performing baroque and, say, romantic or modern music? I think the answer Is probably “not consciously – it’s all music”. But I think I’m kidding myself. I think there must be things I alter. Of course there are things – especially with singing – that remain the same. In particular, using the text to shape phrases and make sense of musical gestures. Composers have been inspired by something in the text to write the music and it’s out job to find that and bring it out. But there are differences in articulation, vocal production and so on. Of course, there’s no such thing as “original instruments” for voices. Or perhaps it’d be better to say there are only original instruments. In that way we have an advantage over our instrumentalist colleagues: we’ve never tried to sing Bach on any other instrument than that which Bach used. But that’s also a problem: because we have to do all periods of music, perhaps we lose sight of the advantages of specialisation. That being said, we all tend to gravitate towards music that suits our instruments. I don’t touch romantic opera: I’ve not got the voice for it. So that is a sort of specialisation.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

In Britain, we’ve recently lost two of the tenors I have admired beyond others: Anthony Rolf Johnson and Philip Langridge. But I think I’ve learned the most from the countless wonderful musicians whom I have had the privilege to work with over the years.


Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & Choir present JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio led by Ivars Taurins–in performances that are now completely sold out—on Thu Dec 3, Fri Dec 4, Sat Dec 5 at 8pm, Sun Dec 6 at 3:30pm  at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Jeanne Lamon Hall.

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1 Response to 10 questions for James Gilchrist

  1. Pingback: St Matthew Passion: Bach at 334 | barczablog

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