One of the soloists in the forthcoming Oxford Bach Soloists Easter concert is bass Humphrey Thompson. Today, we learn more about his musical career.
Firstly, can you tell us something about yourself and your musical training to date?
My first musical memory as a child is dancing around with a toy accordion trying to be a folk musician. Probably best for everyone that I lost interest in the accordion and started singing!
I was a chorister at New College, Oxford as a boy before a post-school gap year at Norwich Cathedral – both hugely fun parts of my life. I am now a music finalist at Caius College, Cambridge where I focus my studies on early Tudor music – lots of reconstruction of lost tenor parts and fun things like that…!
Hilariously I used to be a throaty tenor, but psalm singing in Norwich got too strenuous so, thankfully, I made the drop down to the bottom line. In my first rehearsal as a bass I hit a bottom (yes – bottom) B, but sadly never again since or I’d be rich by now. I have been learning with Russell Smythe for the past two years and have had masterclasses with Sir Thomas Allen, James Gilchrist, Roddy Williams and Nick Mulroy.
What other musical ensembles are you involved with?
In my first year of university I founded my own early music consort, Ensemble Pro Victoria with a friend at King’s because we wanted to be able to sing beardy (early) music in a bit more of a butch way to consorts we’d heard before.
We now mix doing large works alongside period-performance orchestras (Monteverdi, Bach Oratorios) with more intimate consort performances of Ludford, Fayrfax, Tallis and the like. I also sing with Sansara, the Beaufort Singers and have toured with the Royal Academy Chamber Choir.
How long have you been involved with Oxford Bach Soloists and in what roles?
I think my first gig was Christ Lag in Todesbanden a couple of years ago and the Easter Oratorio some timeafter that, both as part of the choir. The recent Christmas Oratorio on Christmas Eve was a particular highlight as my whole family were singing – I think that must be the first time that’s ever happened.
Perhaps you can mention some of your career highlights and your future ambitions?
I recently undertook my first Five Mystical Songs (Vaughan-Williams) with a choral society in Cambridge in Trinity Chapel, which I will be performing as part of my finals recital in West Road concert hall in June. They were tough but being a hermit for a bit to work on them paid off in the end!
This year I’ve also been bass soloist for the Christmas Oratorio (Bach) and Monteverdi Vespers in King’s Chapel, Bach Cantatas 159 and 131 in Trinity Chapel and Theseus in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cambridge has such a busy music scene and I’ve been very lucky to be able to take part in some incredible student projects, most recently a consort performance of Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri in Trinity on Ash Wednesday.
For the future I’m keen to combine my career as a soloist whilst keeping my work in Tudor music going – particularly recording the numerous manuscripts and pieces that still await recognition.
What do you see as the value of ensembles like the Oxford Bach Soloists to younger professional musicians like yourself?
It is hugely important for musicians and ensembles to place trust in young talent and to help cultivate it. The only way we really grow as musicians is having opportunities to get up and sing or play in front of a real audience – it makes you work hard and you improve in great leaps on these occasions. Getting as much real experience is the name of the game and really down to ensembles such as Oxford Bach Soloists.
Tell us about the challenges that a singer faces when taking on the role of Christ in Bach’s Passions?
The first hurdle that one really has to get to grips with is language. Too often one hears sub-standard German from really well-known soloists. We English have to work hard to produce German vowels at times because we have a very lazy language. Once you conquer it it helps the singing and getting the meaning across in so many ways. Understanding large-scale structure is important too, and takes effort.
In the Passion stories Jesus goes from one who does to others to one who has things done to him (betrayal then crucifixion), which is inherent in the grammar of the gospels. This is why Jesus fades out up to the point of his crucifixion. Knowing these larger ideas is also essential to understanding and convincingly presenting the role. Having the confidence to make lots of time and space in the music to get the gravitas of Jesus is also important.
Hear Humphrey Thompson perform solos in both our upcoming Easter concerts with PASSION on 14 April and EASTER ORATORIO on 15 April at New College, Oxford.