Medicine’s loss is singing’s gain as James comes West

Tenor James Gilchrist who will be making his Galway debut at the Music for Galway Mid-Winter Festival from January 19-21.
Tenor James Gilchrist who will be making his Galway debut at the Music for Galway Mid-Winter Festival from January 19-21.

Arts Week with Judy Murphy

As one of Britain’s leading tenors, who specialises in recital and oratorio singing, tenor James Gilchrist has a hectic schedule. Next weekend, he’ll make his debut visit to Galway, singing at Music for Galway’s annual Mid-Winter Festival, where the theme is Beloved – Composers in Love. He will be singing works including Britten’s Michelangelo sonnets, Schumann’s Lieder and opera arias.

Just before Christmas, he was in Holland, Germany and Budapest, touring with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. And his diary is almost totally booked out until June, with concerts in the UK as well as in Canada, Spain, Germany and Portugal.

Although music and singing were part of James’s life since childhood, his career path initially took a totally different route.

“I went through school thinking I’d end up in medicine and I did,” he explains. “After I qualified, I worked as a doctor for a few years. People ask me ‘why did you give it up?’ and I ask myself that too sometimes,” he says with a laugh.

James fell into being a professional singer. But it wasn’t a total surprise. When he was just eight years old, he had come home from school one day and informed his parents that he had joined the school choir and needed to be at rehearsals every Thursday and at morning service every Sunday. He went on to sing in the choir of New College Oxford as a boy treble and as a tenor in King’s College Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar.

Still, his heart was set on being a doctor – he regarded medicine “as a vocation”.

While training, he also sang in professional choirs, both for reasons of sanity and as a way of making a living.

Having passed his MRCP exams (to become a physician) he decided he’d take a break to focus on his music. Initially, it was for a month. But it stretched on, because the requests to sing just kept coming.

After a year as a professional singer, James returned to medicine, working as a locum in a local hospital. “I found it terrifying – I was terrified I’d forgotten something,” he recalls, adding that he hadn’t, but “it made me realise that I can’t do half and half so I opted to give music a go”.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.