Gareth Brynmor John, baritone

Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?

I am the youngest of 3 brothers, and we (plus my Dad) all sang in the choir at Kingston Pariah Church. The choir sang Eucharist and Evensong, so really for years when I was growing up, Sunday in our house was about singing (and church). I went to Tiffin School and sang in the Boys’ Choir, which often provided the children’s chorus for the Royal Opera House. My brothers had done this before me so there didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary about it. I went on to be a choral scholar at St John’s Cambridge – again, lots of people around me were doing the same, so it just seemed normal. I was lucky to at a school with probably the best state school music department in the country. Then at university, I saw people going off to study voice at postgraduate level at the conservatories, and I just knew that is what I wanted to do. So I suppose at each stage, I’ve been most inspired by my peers and my family.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Inevitably, my teachers, be they at secondary school, university or conservatoire had a great influence on my music making. I try to keep in touch with them all as much as possible. There were several very important people for me at the Royal Academy of Music, but over 4 years, weekly coaching sessions with Iain Ledingham totally changed how I engaged with text in several languages. I was thrilled to see that he won the 2017 Bach Prize.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

It is probably the same with most careers, but achieving a good life balance is very hard. I have a wife, Sarah, and two young children. I’ve been away a lot since January, and that is hard for me and it is hard for them. Work is consuming and it is very difficult to switch off from it when I am at home. The pressures of self employment, job insecurity, huge competition, and artistic integrity combine to make it hard to let go!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Performances stick in the mind for different reasons, but my first War Requiem with Jeremy Backhouse in Guildford cathedral was a night I will always remember for the music. I will never forget singing Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall with the Really Big Chorus, that must be the largest scale performance I’ve been involved in. And my Wigmore recital and debut with WNO in La Boheme were obviously big things for me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I think this may change through my career but I think all that choral music when I was growing up has given me an ear for, and understanding of the idiom of English song. I love singing Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Gurney, Britten… I also enjoy German lied, it was always playing on the stereo when I was younger, and I spent a great deal of my time at the Royal Academy of Music studying it. My voice is changing through and I’ve just been doing Schaunard (La Boheme) for WNO. I think the Italianate repertoire is likely to be my staple in the future.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

A lot of the work that I do is preprogrammed, so I don’t always have that much say. I do love the opportunity to programme, and it normally comes in song recitals and in particular through my work with Audrey Hyland and the Songsmiths. We try to put together song recitals that move beyond the sometimes-stale form of one-composer programmes, and put together songs from all periods and languages often to construct some narrative. In opera, it is about being sensitive as your voice changes to what might be a good fit in the future, and working towards that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I made my opera debut at WNO and I’ve worked with that company quite a bit over the past 4 years. They are a very friendly company, and I always love being there. The theatre at the Millennium Centre has an excellent acoustic. The Wigmore also holds some special memories for me, in competitions and in concert.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Renée Flemming, because she must be the most emotionally available and direct performer working today. Renato Bruson, because I adore the way he sings. He said “I think it is more important that the public go home with something in their hearts than some sounds in their ears”. I love that. And I will never tire of the genius of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

For sheer spectacle, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more memorable than Tosca at Bregenz. It was a Philipp Himmelmann production, and the set featured an enormous eye of unbelievable proportions. The whole set up there is unbelievable anyway, with the stage built out over the Bodensee. Seeing Bryn Terfel in the Flying Dutchman at Covent Garden was memorable too, but for different reasons. I was just blown away by his and Anja Kampe’s duet.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

That music should always be about something, be for something, be because of something. We spend years honing instrumental or vocal technique, and it is right that that is the primary focus of teaching, but what’s the point if we don’t try and use it to say something. People need the space at a young age to find what their artistic voice might be.

Gareth performs Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel at Temple Church, London on  Thursday 18 May. Details here

Winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award, baritone Gareth Brynmor John studied at Cambridge University, Royal Academy of Music and National Opera Studio.

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