James Gilchrist talks about Schubert and giving up medicine for a musical career

This is an interview with the classical tenor James Gilchrist which I conducted before a concert he gave in March, since it was originally meant for my university newspaper. They didn’t publish it so I’m reproducing it here instead:

The cake slices sold in the café come in surprisingly tough plastic wrappers. When mine proves tough to open, James Gilchrist has a solution: “Fortunately, being a good Boy Scout, I have a penknife.” As he cuts off the wrapping, he adds “I was never a Boy Scout.”

James Gilchrist could not be more warm, charming and handy with a penknife as I interview him. One of Britain’s most acclaimed classical tenors, he has performed as a solo recitalist, in oratorios and in operas. But he followed an unexpected route to his present-day success. Although he sang in New College, Oxford choir as a child and King’s College, Cambridge choir as a student, he originally trained as a doctor in Whitechapel’s London Hospital. I’m fascinated to hear how and why he switched from a scientific to a creative profession.

“I’ve always done singing as a hobby, and it became more and more that I was doing it professionally. I just thought I’d take a month or two off, and I sort of blinked and it had been a year before I noticed. I was a bit worried that I would have forgotten everything, so I went back and did two night duties in a local hospital and it was all fine, but I was terrified that I would have forgotten something. I think then I decided that medicine is not something you can dabble with, and I think you’ve either got to do it full time, or not at all. And to be honest I think I found the same with my music. When I was doing both of them together, I think I found that I was doing neither of them as well I could. While it’s nice to have two strings to one’s bow, I think it’s best to do one thing so you can get as good as you can at it.”

We’re talking ahead of Gilchrist’s performance, at the University of York’s Jack Lyons Concert Hall, of Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ song cycle. He’s characteristically bursting with enthusiasm for the piece, which narrated by a young man who is rejected by his beloved and wanders through a wintry landscape in despair: “It certainly explores the doom-laden side of human nature, but within the dark colours there is enormous variety. There’s rage and self pity and profound disappointment. It’s a very moving work, and I find it fascinating to do because you can practice each of the songs, and they’re all astonishingly beautiful, but there’s very little sense of a journey in the rehearsal process. I feel that the journey is spectacularly present in a live performance.”

His other recordings include Schubert’s other song cycle, ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ – based, like ‘Winterreise’, on Wilhelm Müller’s poetry – and Vaughn Williams’ version of A. E. Houseman’s ‘On Wenlock Edge’ poems. What’s unusual about singing musical versions of poems? “There are so many creative people involved. There’s the poet, who comes up with the idea, and the composer, who sees an opportunity to make their own voice come alive within it. And then of course there are the performers, and there’s the audience who are listening and understanding the poem and hearing the music and hearing the performance.”

He’s clearly passionate about the audience’s role in completing a concert – and indeed his emotionally expressive performances are very effective in engaging the audience with the song’s meaning. What would he say to the people who see classical music as about as interesting and accessible as the small print of an insurance policy? He insists unapologetically that classical music is “not entertainment. It’s about speaking to one another and exploring the deeper parts of our being. It’s a bit of a dangerous art form, because you have to allow your emotions to govern your intellect, but I think that if you dare, you can get a huge amount out of it.”

Is he nervous about tonight’s performance? “I always get nervous. As someone said to me once, the day I stop getting nervous is the day I’ll give up, because it means I don’t care.” That day seems impossible to imagine.


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