Facing the music: James Gilchrist

WNO’s Handel, David Watkin’s Bach, Scotland’s folk musicians and India’s traditional instruments – tenor James Gilchrist on the music that inspires him.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

How can you be guilty about music? There just isn’t anything in music to be ashamed of.

What was the first ever record or CD you bought?

I think that was probably my sister who bought it, but I have very clear early memories of Elton John’s Daniel. I can still remember most of the words. I think I was a bit obsessed with it. I looked up recently when it came out. It can’t be right – so long ago!

What was the last piece of music you bought?

David Watkin’s recording of the six Bach Cello Suites. It’s a fabulous recording, and knowing the struggle to record it and that David really hasn’t played since makes it doubly moving to listen to.

James Gilchrist sings Britten

Is applauding between movements acceptable?

Yes and no. I mean, it depends on the work. I think between moments of a Haydn symphony – definitely. But in the middle of Die Schöne Müllerin it would be a bit of a shame.

If you found yourself with six months free to learn a new instrument, what would you choose?

I was lucky enough to take part in a project with some musicians from the Punjab recently. I’ve had a shockingly narrow education and know nothing at all about Indian music and I was awestruck. So I’d love to have a go at the dilruba – it’s hauntingly beautiful. I dare say it’d sound like a strangled cat in my hands, though.

The dilruba

How do you mostly listen to music?

Often the radio in the car. But I’m so old-fashioned it’s normally a CD in the system at home. I’ve rigged it up so that there’s a (very bad) pair of speakers in the kitchen too, so I can make myself a cup of tea without interrupting the flow. For some reason my family finds this very annoying.

What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?

Getting the musicians to talk to the audience more about what they’re performing. I’ve only ever had positive comments about it. It breaks down barriers, relaxes everybody and makes the audience feel more of a valued part of the relationship rather than outsiders.

What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

Welsh National Opera’s Jephtha 2003
‘We were part of something bigger than ourselves.’ Welsh National Opera’s 2003 production of Handel’s Jephtha. Photograph: Bill Cooper/WNO

I will never forget Welsh National Opera’s Jephtha when it toured to Oxford, where I then lived. It was a new production then (it must be more than 10 years ago), and it was deeply moving. Sue Bickley singing Scenes of Horror had my hair standing on end. The audience left pretty much in silence afterwards. We had all been part of something bigger than ourselves.

Do you enjoy musicals? Do you have a favourite?

Not really. I love the theatre and seeing a show. But if I’m honest, the music sometimes seems to miss the point for me. I’ve tried to make a life out of singing and expressing words through song, and half the time the word-setting in musicals seems to be so against what I feel is likely to work. Long notes on unimportant syllables, important words lost in the depths of a meaningless meandering melody. It’s silly to generalise: the older ones are better, I think. But I saw Les Mis when it came out as a film recently and despaired. Great cinema, but the music seemed to pass me by. Where are the tunes, for God’s sake? Mind you, it made about a squillion bucks. Maybe I’m missing something …

Which conductor or performer of yesteryear do you most wish you could have worked with?

How far back can I go? If it’s not cheating, I’d love to say Handel in London in the 1740s. He was at the top of his game – irascible, irrepressible, workaholic, but I think probably great fun to be with (I bet he enjoyed the pub after a show) and such a spontaneous, accommodating and yet exacting musician. His music is so alive today. To have seen him in the thick of it would have opened our eyes. I suspect his music-making would have been much freer and improvisatory than modern taste would think fit.

What’s the most overrated classical work? Is there a warhorse whose appeal you really don’t relate to?

I am really sorry to say this, but I think it’s the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th. I’m quite sure it’s because I’ve not heard good enough performances, but I can’t help finding the tune boring rather than stirring and feeling desperate sympathy for the choir having to scream top Gs for hours. I just want it to stop!

Which non-classical musician would you love to work with?

I heard Rura at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow this January. I so envied their ease with improvisation and freedom within structure. Just brilliant musicians. I don’t think they’d have me, though. As well as being totally useless in their field, I’m far too English!

What do you sing in the shower?

Whatever I’m learning. It’s where I start my practice. I do all my best work there.

James Gilchrist appears in Mozart’s Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with the Philharmonia Orchestra and The Bach Choir in a gala concert in aid of Pancreatic Cancer UK on 21 April.

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