The great British countertenor James Thomas Bowman died on March 27 at the age of 81. He ended his career in May 2011 with a London concert at Wigmore Hall, after retiring from the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, London. Naturally spiritual, gifted for life, Bowman has always possessed a warm and powerful voice, compared to those of his colleagues, a pure vocal line, a perfectly mastered style and a medium with shimmering colors, qualities which he had knew how to preserve beyond the passage of time.
Following the pioneer Alfred Deller (1912-1979), he contributed for three decades to drawing the contemporary image of the countertenor: a voice returned from ancient times since, as he liked to recall, “countertenors have always existed: they sang in the choirs of Christian churches”.
Born November 6, 1941 in Oxford, this pure product of the English musical tradition had studied between 1951 and 1960 in the choirs of the King’s School, in Ely (Cambridgeshire). After a hiatus during his transformation, he returned to the bass section before giving his first public performance as a countertenor in 1959 to a group of schoolchildren in the Lady Chapel. He then began studying history at New College in his hometown, joining the Choir of New College and the Christ Church Cathedral Choir.
The early 1960s saw him seriously tackle the work of vocal technique, consolidating his surprising abilities – and a certain taste – for the countertenor register which he would soon approach in baroque operas and oratorios. A single audition, when he was still a student, convinced composer Benjamin Britten to engage him in his English Opera Group, with which James Bowman made his debut in March 1967 for the inaugural concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. The same year, he recorded with the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge and the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Willcocks, the Midnight Mass by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, which will be a huge success.
Benjamin Britten once backed the legendary Alfred Deller, for whom he wrote the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s dream composed in 1960. A role that James Bowman took on in 1967 at the Aldeburgh Festival (Suffolk), before exporting it to Paris the same year, at the Théâtre de l’Odéon, taking it around the world, then record it late, in 1990, with Richard Hickox. Until his death in 1976, Britten would write for him, from Song IV. Journey of the Magion a text by TS Eliot, premiered on June 26, 1971 with the composer at the piano and tenor Peter Pears, his companion, in the voice of Apollo in the opera Death in Venicegiven its world premiere on June 16, 1973, alongside Peter Pears in the role of Gustav von Aschenbach.
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