We get to the bottom of the quirky British vocal ensemble and its ‘beany’ Italian name.

Nowadays, it seems every new music ensemble on the block has ‘gotta have a gimmick’ as they say. Of course, in a climate where it’s easier to stay home and catch the latest Berlin Phil gig streamed online – or maybe pop down to the cinema for an opera in HD and a bag of popcorn – an extra motivation to get off your backside is probably not such a bad thing. But originality in the concert hall isn’t as recent a phenomenon as you might think. British Renaissance and contemporary vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, whose name has been “misspelt, mispronounced and misunderstood throughout the world” as they are keen to let you know, has been thinking outside of the box since it was founded at Oxford University as long ago as 1986.

Novelty and freshness are bywords for this market-savvy group, and with programmes going by names like The Full Monteverdi and Tallis in Wonderland, they clearly sport a lively sense of humour. With 15 CDs under their collective belt and trailing a slew of awards, the group is about to make its debut Australian national tour with Musica Viva. Curious to discover what they have in store for audiences down under, I caught up via Skype with their charismatic founder Robert Hollingworth. The ‘Oxbridge’ system has fostered many early music groups from The Consort of Musicke to The Tallis Scholars, but perhaps none quite so individual as I Fagiolini. So what prompted them to come together? And was there a specific performance philosophy from the start?

“I suppose I simply loved the music and wanted to do it myself,” Hollingworth explains over the Internet from his home in the UK. “For me the two fundamental things are being expressive on a personal level and being a part of a larger ensemble. I love the idea of being a cog in the wheel, one voice in a six-part Bach texture, while at the same time being personally expressive with my line.”

A scene from I Fagiolini’s Carte Blanche

That, of course, sounds no different from one of the standard reasons why many people take to singing – but wait, there’s more. The conventional explanation out of the way, Hollingworth segues swiftly into admitting to a fascination with the drawings of Heath Robinson and a predilection for the breakfast scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – remember, the bit where Caractacus Potts sings to the children while his crazy and complex invented machine prepares their sausages and eggs? “I’d like to be one of those eggs!” Hollingworth declares.

That enchantment with the quirky, even dare I say the eccentric, carries over to many of the repertoire choices for which the group has become famous. “Some people may think it’s niche music, but it’s only niche because it’s not better known,” Hollingworth evangelises. “It’s gorgeous music that frankly anyone can enjoy if they’re introduced to it in the right way.”

While I mull that over, I decide I have to ask about the name. Whereas many groups opt for sober appellations with historic connotations (The Cardinal’s Musicke or Alamire, say) I Fagiolini have rather an unusual moniker. Where did that come from? “Anything I say is likely to be an out-and-out lie,” Hollingworth teases. “The only honest answer is to be found on our website.” A quick google and I’m looking at what they assure me is “the unexpurgated truth.” Back in 1986, at New College, Oxford, early music was known as ‘beany’ music because most of the musicians that seemed to be interested in it seemed to favour an alternative lifestyle of “knitted yoghurt and wholefood pullovers, living on a diet of nothing but pulses and beans”. Stuck for a name at short notice, countertenor Richard Wyn Roberts proposed calling themselves ‘the beans’ to which Hollingworth suggested translating it into Italian and using a diminutive as it would “sound nicer like that”. This apparently worked well until I Fagiolini went to Italy and discovered the various slang connotations it has there. 

“We discovered the name also meant ‘cockerel’s testicles’ in certain parts of italy – we don’t go to italy much!”

Pressing him for the salacious details, Hollingworth fesses up. “We discovered that the name also meant ‘cockerel’s testicles’ in certain parts of the country,” he admits. “We don’t go to Italy much! I suppose it’s also connected with that whole British humour thing – that and finding some of the other Oxford and Cambridge dominated ensembles were perhaps taking themselves a little too seriously. So while we take the music deathly seriously, I hope we never took ourselves too seriously.”

After a decade or so recording for various connoisseur labels like Metronome and Chandos, a few years ago I Fagiolini hit the headlines on Decca with its revelatory world premiere recording of the overwhelming 40-part mass by the Venetian Alessandro Striggio – at the time an unknown work by a virtually unknown composer. That reputation on record will be how most Australians would have heard of them, and that has been almost exclusively garnered through ‘early’ music, yet their programme for Musica Viva is particularly wide ranging – from Janequin (c. 1530) right up to the present with a new commission from Australian composer Andrew Schultz.

“The only reason we haven’t recorded more contemporary music is because commercially it’s so hard to make it work,” Hollingworth reveals. “The companies we were with have been keener on the Renaissance end of things, but we’re just about to record a disc of 20th-century French music including some very rare pieces such as Jean Françaix’s Ode to Gastronomy.”

Something of a closet fan of Françaix – a cheerful neoclassical composer inexplicably under-represented on record – I make some enquiries. “It’s not just about food, it’s about the whole French relationship with food,” says Hollingworth (who should know as he himself is married to a French woman). “Do you remember the old book Fattypuffs and Thinifers? In it there were thin people and fat people, and the thin people allegedly ate to live while the fat people lived to eat. Well, for the French eating is a culture – and Françaix’s piece is all about that. It’s sort of Poulenc meets Jacques Brel.”

With that typically offbeat reference to André Maurois’ deliciously whacky 1930’s children’s book, I can’t help thinking I’m detecting something of a madcap theme going on here. Meanwhile, the French thing looms large. They may not be doing Françaix in Australia, but they will be performing Poulenc’s engaging Sept Chansons to surrealist texts by Apollinaire, Éluard and Legrand. What is it draws them again and again to this music? 

I Fagiolini in rehearsal © Keith Saunders

“Poulenc and Monteverdi are my two favourite vocal composers,” Hollingworth admits. “They each invented a sound world that is so specific to them, and yet it’s intensely emotional music. I adore singing in French, probably even more than in Italian. Practically the whole French language is onomatopoeic. I think a lot of recordings of this music have hidden behind interesting harmonies without really relating to the emotional content of a surrealist and erotic poet like Éluard. It’s very powerful and it’s very sensual in the fullest meaning of the word. The physical sound makes a strong impression on people.”

At this point I admit to being a particular fan of the group’s three Monteverdi albums on Chandos. Where many ensembles trudge religiously through the collections book by book, I Fagiolini invariably scamper around at will, dipping a toe into each. “One of my lifelong interests is how an audience receives music,” Hollingworth explains. “You have to imagine someone sitting in a chair, gradually dozing off because of the unchanging texture of five or six voices over the course of 45 minutes. I always imagine my mum is in the audience. Although she’s a musician, she has no particular understanding of the music I do so I try to imagine that everyone will be like that. One shouldn’t assume that one is performing for people who are obsessed by Monteverdi five-part madrigals. That’s why I like to mix things up. I think the whole construct of this sort of programme in concert is very peculiar. If you want to sit and listen to a Brahms piano trio that lasts for 40 minutes that’s fine, but our music has a strong social side to it and the pieces tend to be shorter.”

Another glance at their Australian plans has me spotting a work by the Venetian composer Giovanni Croce intriguingly called The Game of the Goose. “It’s a 16th-century board game that is still played in continental Europe,” Hollingworth tells me. “In the course of the music we actually sit down and play it. The only thing that’s a fix is the same person wins every time – it’s written into the piece. It’s just a little six-minute masque from 1590 Venice but it’s great fun!”

I Fagiolini have only been to Australia once before – for the Perth International Festival in 2012. On that occasion they joined with Brisbane-based circus company Circa to create a theatrical collaboration called How Like an Angel designed to celebrate the London 2012 cultural Olympiad. Typically eclectic
I Fagiolini programming, the show contained a choral work written by composer Adrian Williams entitled Hymn to Awe. It was one of the hits of that year’s festival and so they are bringing it back by popular demand as part of this tour. “Adrian writes emotional, beautifully crafted music,” says Hollingworth. “It was written to be the end of a show with six acrobats and eight voices and it completely blew us away. Audiences had the most visceral response. I suppose the piece is about original thought. It’s about how before cathedrals were built, before anyone had painted anything, they had this original thought. It’s a very powerful piece.”

Robert Hollingworth conducts

And if you want really ‘off the wall’, their new commission from Australia’s own Andrew Schultz sounds like an absolute hoot. A spoof on Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire (otherwise known as The Hypochondriac and famously set to music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier back in 1673), La Molière Imaginaire nails its comedic colours firmly to the mast in title alone. “It’s taken from the last act of the play in which a young student comes to graduate before a group of doctors,” explains Hollingworth. “It’s basically sending up the medical profession circa 1680. The entire thing is written in a sort of jokey ‘dog Latin’, which the audience was clearly meant to have understood. The first thing I did was to get some Latin scholars to give me a really full translation. Then I sent it to the British comedy writer, Timothy Knapman, who happens to have a Classics background, and asked him to do me a sort of modern dog Latin. But he’s also written a translation into it, so you get moments like: ‘viseagum apparabit bottox’, followed immediately by: ‘her face seems strangely smooth’. Andrew has been very good about really trying to keep the text clear, but it will be one where you need to keep your ears peeled!”

That combination of collaboration, comedy and dramatising of pieces in ways you might not expect is fundamental then to an I Fagiolini gig. The Full Monteverdi, for example, contextualised the Venetian master’s madrigals in terms of couple relationships and was set in a restaurant. “I think what those dramatic performances have left us with is a really clear understanding of the emotional meaning of the music and not just the chords,” Hollingworth tells me. “There’s that fantastic Thomas Beecham quote – which I think is a bit unfair about the English, but you can see the point he’s making – where he said: “the English don’t like music, just the noise it makes.” I think there’s a danger with Renaissance music that a group sits at one end of a church and makes a very beautiful noise (which is fine) but it leaves the audience gazing in wonder without necessarily engaging with the music itself. It’s like the difference between looking at a cathedral from afar and maybe having a proper guided tour and seeing some of the lovely arches and carvings.”

With such a clear agenda, a mission and a message, I Fagiolini share common goals with groups like Canada’s Tafelmusik, another popular recent touring ensemble for Musica Viva. “I think everything we do has some kind of evangelising about it,” Hollingworth admits, “but above all – and it’s really not a dirty word – I Fagolini concerts are an entertainment. People have paid to leave their houses and not just put on a CD or watch a DVD that night – they deserve to have a good time!”

Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini tour Australia with Musica Viva from July 25-August 11

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