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James Gilchrist on the importance of not always being yourself

September 5, 2008

This is an edited version of an interview with Anne Ozorio

James Gilchrist’s direct, vivid approach to song has made him one of the most refreshing tenors to emerge in the last few years.

Before becoming a professional singer, Gilchrist was a doctor, but his love for music started at an early age. “As a boy, I was surrounded by music. I was a chorister in one of the chapel choirs in Oxford and even in the local church enjoyed what I heard there.  Naturally, most of the material was great standard English choral tradition.  We are lucky that we have such a rich heritage in this country, Byrd, Tallis, Purcell.  So my roots are in Renaissance and 19th /20th century English music.  However, Edward Higginbotham, who conducted the New College Choir had a strong interest in French repertoire as well, and introduced French and German music even to the boys choir, which was relatively unusual at that time. In those days, the Iberian and South American early music we hear now wasn’t well known.  So I was drawn towards art song, and chamber music with song, which inevitably means the Austro-German mainstream.  Music is a powerful spiritual and artistic mode of communication and art song in particular, which is based on poetry, has huge emotional content. I feel, sometimes, that I come alive when I can convey that in my singing.” One might observe that music isn’t really so different from medicine in terms of positive benefits for listeners and performers. As Gilchrist adds, “art is not an optional extra tacked onto the “real” purpose of life seen narrowly in terms of making money and big business.  Art is what we’re here for, it’s a way of expressing what makes us human”.

Gilchrist specialises in English art song. …What gives him this affinity for English song ?  “It is”, he says, “a kind of “English disease” not to value what is home grown.  It’s as if we’re too self-effacing, too reticent, and assume that major works of art can only come from outside.  But English art song is very fine work indeed.” 

So how does Gilchrist prepare his interpretations ?  “I try to get to grips with the poems even before I really study the music, in order to find what was in the poetry that moved the composer to set it in the first place.  With [Finzi’s] Intimations of Immortality, it took some time because it’s such a vast work. It wasn’t a piece I wanted to do when I was very young not only because of the intensity of the poem, but also because it demands physical stamina. It’s one of those pieces best left after your 35th birthday.  It’s a mistake to approach works like this before you have the maturity to do them properly.  I’d known Intimations for some time but hadn’t thought of recording it until Naxos came up with an offer, quite serendipitously at a time when I had three concert performances scheduled.  So it was a good chance to really get to grips with the piece and live with it for a period of several months”.

Modern singers emphasise communication, and Gilchrist’s pure, natural-sounding tonal range is distinctive.  It’s rather like Peter Schreier singing Bach Evangelists.  The “story” mattered to him and he sang with vivid emotional involvement.  German tenors don’t sound like the archetype “English tenor”.  “You’ve hit a raw nerve there”, exclaims Gilchrist, for among singers and musicians, calling someone an “English tenor” is almost an insult.  It implies that someone has a “nice-ish” voice and a worthy manner but is somewhat detached.  It’s sometimes been called, jokingly, “singing in kid gloves”.  But composers chose texts for a purpose, in an attempt to communicate.  “It is easy to become all “singery” about singing and concentrate on beauty of tone and line.  Of course such things are critical, but the overriding importance for me is to communicate the sense of what I’m singing, the emotion and ideas.  If one doesn’t do that in some way, one has failed.  I try to approach all music in that way, be it Bach, or Handel or Guillaume Dufay. Ultimately, music is a means of communication and if you’re not communicating, you’re not really “there”.  Song recitals can be dull when the quality of voice remains unchanged from beginning to end because the singer’s discovered no colours.  The truly great singers have a huge palette of vocal colour to choose from.  It’s not good to paint from a narrow palette.  Our “art” should be subservient to our communication”.

Unlike actors, singers are guided by a text and score, so they can’t really lose themselves in a role.  Nonetheless, they do reveal themselves psychologically as their interpretations reveal their emotional responses.  Live performances are upfront and personal, unlike recordings where an audience isn’t actually present.  “It’s important not to always be yourself”, says Gilchrist, “but also not to leave yourself out.  It’s a balance.  I’ve been to Lieder recitals where I’ve felt terribly naked, exposed to the raw emotion revealed when the singer is too close.  So when I perform I try and create a physical distance and put some barriers between me and the audience in order to remove some of the discomfort of having someone emote right in front of you. It might be a jug of water, some flowers or even a lamp, just between me and the audience, but it creates a neutral space.  Thus I feel more comfortable as a performer, and more able to inhabit the music. If there’s no space between I feel slightly self conscious and shy of “breaking down” in front of people, even though it’s in the music.  That little space gives a performer a little distance in which to undergo his transformation and it’s less inhibiting both for the performer and the audience”.   Recordings are presumably even more detached.  On the other hand, though, Gilchrist says “you listen differently when you’re in a darkened room or while beetling along in a car, and get different things in different circumstances”.
- Anne Ozorio, MusicWeb international

James Gilchrist sings on a number of Naxos recordings:

BACH, J.S.: St. John Passion 8.557296-97
FINZI: Dies natalis / Farewell to Arms / 2 Sonnets 8.570417
FINZI: Intimations of Immortality / For St Cecilia 8.557863
HOWELLS: Hymnus paradisi / Sir Patrick Spens 8.570352
REJOICE - A Vision of Christ Through Music 8.570980
STAINER: Crucifixion (The) 8.557624


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