Meet the musician: James Gilchrist

Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 16:07

James Gilchrist is a prolific tenor, specialising in recital and oratorio singing, who has appeared in venues across the UK and abroad. As a boy, Gilchrist was a treble in the Choir of New College, Oxford and went on to be a choral scholar in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. He initially trained as a doctor, performing alongside his practical studies at London’s Whitechapel Hospital before turning to music full-time in 1996.

Having appeared often here at Southbank Centre, Gilchrist was happy to answer our questions about what he loves and what he’d change about classical concerts, and what it feels like to be up on stage.

What do you love about classical concerts?

I think there are three main things I love. 

The first sounds odd, but it’s that I don’t have to do anything else. I know that for the next couple of hours, I can just think about the music, be in the hall, and not have to worry about anything. Music takes time to happen, and we need to give it time, and let ourselves be in that time without interruption. It’s quite a rare chance in the modern world – life is so busy and noisy and disorganised – yet in a concert, there’s only this, just one thing I have to do. 

The second is simply that I love to see people doing something in front of me that I know is very hard to do, and to marvel at the skill on display. There are people right there doing something that is difficult and challenging. They’re taking risks, putting themselves on the line just for me (well, me and everybody else in the hall).

The third is sort of obvious; I love music. I just love the sound, the way music works and how I can get delighted or saddened, feel reckless or careful, be overwhelmed by sound or strain to listen. And the wonderful thing is that the more I hear of music, the better this gets. Every time I hear something that I know, I get more out of it. And if I hear something I don’t know, I generally think ‘I can’t wait to hear that again’.  


What, if anything, would you change about classical concerts?

I always like it when the performers talk about what they are going to do. I’d like more of that. It breaks the ice and makes me feel more involved in the show.


Classical concerts allow us to let ourselves be in the moment without interruption. It’s quite a rare chance in the modern world – life is so busy and noisy and disorganised – yet in a concert, there’s only this.
James Gilchrist


How does it feel to perform in concert? And what role does the audience play in the experience?

What a good question, especially the second part. I mean, it can feel quite simply terrifying being on stage. You can see all those people watching, expecting, and it can be overwhelmingly humbling if you let it. You end up thinking ‘why are they all looking at me?’ But the audience plays a huge role in concerts. Not just in making the performers feel comfortable (which they can – or indeed may not), but the whole atmosphere of the hall is changed by the ‘mood’ of the audience. You can feel whether the audience is with you or not, whether they’re moved, enjoying it, or bored and wondering how long it is until the interval. Concerts happen in the moment and no two concerts are ever the same. Even if you’re doing a long tour of one piece in lots of different places, every time feels different and new and fresh. Always. It’s astonishing.


Any top tips for first time concert goers?

Only to be ready to let go a bit. Not to expect anything, but just to be for a couple of hours.


Can you suggest a piece of music that a newcomer to classical performance might enjoy?

It’s sort of impossible to answer this as I think there is so much wonderful music, and it’s all just there, waiting. It depends what mood you’re in, I think. But as a singer, I’m always fascinated by song, and I wonder whether something like Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder are interesting to start with. 

They’re short and varied, it doesn’t really matter what they’re all about (well, it does, but not to begin with). Each little song is clearly just a gem in its own right, and it’s possible to be amazed by the different sounds that come out of an orchestra and how clearly you can be moved by the way the music flows. And with a great singer, such as the brilliant American singer Jessye Norman, who sadly died recently, you can feel their soul reaching out to yours. Take time and have some quiet.



Are you a newcomer to classical music? We’ve put together a special introduction to bust myths, confront perceptions and interpret jargon so that the pleasures of listening to live classical music can shine through. 

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