Who or what inspired you to and pursue a career in music?
Music has always been part of me. I grew up in a musical family, and music was always around me. I never ever dreamed that I might take it up as a career. In some ways, I still feel like that. Britain has a wonderful tradition of amateur music-making, but this comes at a cost: people don’t really value taking music as a career. I couldn’t begin to say how many times I’ve been asked after a performance what my real job is – what I actually do for a living. And easy as it is to poke fun at people who ask such things, I fear that their accusation that music isn’t a proper thing to do at all infects me too. But influences? Well, many. I saw Paul Tortellier playing when I was a little boy, and went to meet him afterwards. I was speechless with awe, but I’ve never forgotten the event. Talking of speechless with awe, I remember sitting next to Janet Baker at a dinner once, when I was about sixteen. I was so dumb-struck with terror (she was, of course, anything but terrifying – charm itself) that I think I didn’t say a word the whole evening. But when I was a chorister in New College, Oxford, I remember being deeply impressed with the singing of Rufus Müller when we were doing earlier music. We duetted in Tavener’s Western Wynd mass on disc. That was a big , formative moment.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
This is a very hard question to answer. St Endellion festival, the various choirmasters in the beginning of my musical life – Stephen Bell in Banbury parish church, Edward Higginbottom at New College, Stephen Cleobury in King’s – all taught me so much. But perhaps if I were to single people out, it’d be two teachers at school, Julian Smith, who taught me singing, and my piano teacher Robert Bottone. These two men made me understand that music can be taken seriously, and that doing so makes it ever more important. They showed me, I think, that not to do it to the best you possibly can for every performance is somehow to misunderstand that reason why we’re here at all, as well as being profoundly demeaning to the audience. It’s a lesson I continue to learn and hopefully to make part of my life.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Coming to terms with the fact that I’m not as good as I would like to me. That what I want to say is sometimes beyond me. There have, of course, been lots of terrifying performances, but this is definitely the greatest challenge. I remember doing Berlioz L’enfance in the proms, on the telly, with Gardiner conducting. It should have been my most terrifying performance ever. But if truth be told, I wasn’t really “there” at all: my wife was ill in hospital just after the birth of our third child, and I think my mind and soul were with my family rather than on stage. Oddly, I think the performance from me was not at all bad. Perhaps I should be absent more often. Though hopefully not for that reason. Fortunately, everybody came out well from the experience. Gerontius in Gloucester cathedral, where I knew I was not doing well, and I just had to carry on.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Recordings, I think two Finzi ones: Anna’s and my Finzi songs disc Oh Fair to see. It’s really quite good, I think. And I still like the musical decisions we’ve made. And the Bournemouth SO’s Dies Natalis with David Hill. Much more recently, Anna and I were doing a recital in Leicester and one of the works was about grief and bereavement. Afterwards, someone came up who was clearly moved: she’d recently lost her husband. She told us that our performance had helped her enormously. That makes everything worthwhile. Last year I performed Dichterliebe (amongst other things) in front of the queen of Denmark. She was very kind and didn’t say too many critical things. I rather enjoyed telling her that I’d recently been performing some Clara Schumann songs that had been dedicated to one of her forbears. She was delighted, and knew exactly who that Queen must have been.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I’d like to think that I’m quite good at singing Bach. Ever since Gardiner’s Cantata pilgrimage of the year 2000, where we had to perform so many Bach cantatas at lighting learning-speed, I think my understanding of the way his music works has increased and deepened. I remember learning as a child that Bach was an “instrumental” composer: his vocal lines were impossible. I seem always to find him quite the reverse: in Essence a vocal writer, who understood, loved and played with the voice in such a natural way that all we performers have to do it do what’s on the page, and it’s All There. It is hard, but so doable and practical. And Human. I’d love to make a claim that my Schubert isn’t bad, but frankly I’m up against some pretty stiff competition. It all depends what you want. If you’re after beautiful legato tone at every turn, look elsewhere. But if you want to know what the poem’s about, I hope I have something to say. Purcell and twentieth-century English song. Dear me, the list is long. I fear I’m being all too immodest. See question 2 above!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I was tempted to say “my front room, because nobody’s listening”. It’d be tempting to say the Wigmore, because it is so good acoustically, but honestly I am always totally overwhelmed by the thought of who has stood there before me. Perhaps the Holywell music room in Oxford. It’s such a friendly audience and a venue just perfect for chamber music.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Obviously ALL musicians are my favourite. I did the most extraordinary few concerts with jazz musicians recently. Alcyona Mick on the piano, I just can’t think how she manages to be so brilliant. And talking of pianists, Anna Tilbrook, whom I’ve been working with for more the 20 years. She’s simply the best. But I rather like slightly off-the-wall musicians. People who look beyond what’s on the page and remember the audience.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I remember a performance of the St John Passion in London where a lady in the front row – right in front of me – became unwell in the show. She sort of fell backwards a bit and looked awful. I must confess that I thought she’d died. She wasn’t the youngest member of the audience. So I was relieved and delighted when she perked up a few seconds later. There was a bit of a kerfuffle – an ambulance had been called. But she looked OK to me. So I hopped off the stage to ask her what she would like us to do – stop or carry on. She was quite adamant: You carry on, dear, it’s lovely. So I got back up, and on we went. I hadn’t thought it through, with me having been medical once upon a time. But people thought I’d done something miraculous and saved the day! Not at all. But I’m never one to get in the way of a good story.
Or doing Haydn’s Jahreszeiten in the Vienna Musikverein. An amazing experience only slightly marred by the conductor being too nervous to behave properly. But one thing he did do right was ask me to conduct for a bit while he checked the balance. I can see why it goes to their heads…
Or doing Zaide (which is a version of the abduction of the Seraglio) in the Arsenal in Istanbul.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
What an INTERESTING question. I mean clearly, it’s being asked to do all the big gigs and getting top billing and being generally the name of the moment. But it isn’t at all, is it? Well, I hope not! Being able to say : I think I did that as well as I can, and I hope our performance moved people and made a difference. God, that sounds awfully worthy, but I think it’s right. You’ve succeeded if people come away from the show a little taller, a little wholer, a little more aware that when they went in. If something happened to them.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To treat every performance as equally important. It’s so easy to say the “big gigs” are the big ones. Of course they are. But the little ones matter just as much. Even more, perhaps. The one thing I can’t bear to see in a performer is that they don’t really care.
James Gilchrist appears with Guy Johnston (cello) and Tom Poster (piano) on Orchid Classics new release ‘Themes and Variations’ which includes music by Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Schubert, Martinu and Rachmaninov. Further information
Tenor James Gilchrist began his working life as a doctor, turning to a full-time career in music in 1996. His musical interest was fired at a young age, singing first as a chorister in the choir of New College, Oxford, and later as a choral scholar atKing’s College, Cambridge.