I Fagiolini, the British vocal ensemble founded 35 years ago by Robert Hollingworth, has earned a reputation for its innovative programs and theatrical approach. They come to the Cork International Choral Festival for the first time to perform their latest project titled “Re-Wilding The Waste Land”, which offers meditations in words and music on themes of renewal and regeneration using the classic poem by TS Eliot as a key element.
The Waste Land is considered one of the most important of the 20th century and has relevance for audiences today, as director and countertenor Hollingworth explained to me over the phone from his base at the University. York.
“It’s the similarity in the place where it [TS Eliot] was where we are now,” says Hollingworth. “It’s the 100th anniversary of the play, he wrote it in the aftermath of World War I and the Spanish flu. There is a war in Europe, in which we are about to wonder if we should enter and try not to. The Archduke is mentioned in The Waste Land, whose death sparked World War I. We’re worried about what the future will be – you’re putting climate change in there.
All of this, Hollingworth admits, could discourage audiences looking for some escapism in their cultural experience. “I didn’t like it at first because I thought I had to figure it all out, but if you throw it all away and just listen to it as a mesmerizing stream of consciousness, just let it bounce off you. The poem takes you from the gray trenches to a tropical rainforest and the music reinforces the message.
The programme, which received rave reviews when the program premiered in the UK last year with narration by actor Tamsin Greig, features readings from all five sections of Eliot’s epic poem and contemporary literary responses intertwined to Renaissance music, choral works from the time of Eliot and no less than six new works commissioned by the ensemble.
In Cork, Bernadette Cronin takes on the role of narrator. “What the program does is take you on a journey that begins darkly with the poem itself, ‘April is the cruellest month,'” says Hollingworth. “It’s amazing to play this program in April a hundred years after it was published. . It opens with the setting Renaissance composer William Byrd wrote after the martyrdom of a Jesuit priest in 1581 who describes the bodies of saints laid out for the birds to eat.
“If you think about what’s happening in Ukraine right now, that’s a direct description of that. You have Victoria’s Tenebrae, Responses for Holy Week, located in a low end of the register, deep and dark. But the music is in somehow takes us somewhere else at the end. The final piece is Joanna Marsh’s finest setting to a poem by Irish poet John F Deane entitled “The World is Charged”, itself a response to a poem, ” God’s Grandeur”, by Gerald Manley Hopkins.
What makes sixteenth-century and contemporary composers so compatible? “Because the greatest composers of those centuries have written the best music for acapella ensembles. If you think about 17th and 18th century music, there was a continuo and an accompanying orchestra with almost everything. It took until the 20th century and the renaissance in the interest of 16th century music for people to take this music seriously.
The ensemble, he points out, is not a choir but a single-voiced vocal ensemble, the musical equivalent, suggests Hollingworth, of five people painting a scene on a canvas at the same time.
While the discussion revolves around music that touches on deep themes, there’s a lighthearted tone in the conversation with the animation director who admits a childhood ambition to be creamed on national television by Spike Milligan. and cites twin enthusiasms for Monty Python and Monteverdi in his biography. The name ‘I Fagiolini’ translates to green beans, a curious name for a high-profile acapella group that he says is a 35-year-old joke.
“When I was at university there was this interest in historically informed performance and all the period instrument orchestras that came to Oxford to accompany the choirs seemed to be yoghurt-knitting vegetarians. This music became known as beanie-music.
Increasingly, Hollingworth is filming her projects, and the ensemble’s website is filled with all manner of videos that reveal a multi-faceted performative approach. Avid singers should check out SingTheScore, comprising about three dozen YouTube videos analyzing a short piece of early music. Part tutorial, part nonsensical comedy skit, they show that Hollingworth’s impulse is to both inform and entertain.
- I Fagiolini, Thursday 28 April, 8 p.m., St Mary & St Anne Cathedral (La Chapelle Nord)
Wednesday 27 April Opening Gala Concert Handel’s Messiah Concert celebrating GF Handel’s “Messiah” performed by the Sestina Choir of Northern Ireland. 8:00 p.m. at Cork City Hall.
Thursday April 28 Gala performance of ‘Re-Wilding the Wasteland’ by Il Fagiolini A new program inspired by TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘Re-Wilding the Wasteland’: 8pm at the Cathedral of St Mary and St Ann (Cork)
Friday April 29 at 7:30 p.m. at St Finbarres Cathedral Chamber Choir Ireland The program includes the first performance of the winning composition of the Seán Ó Riada composition competition 2022 “Behind This Light” by Daragh Black Hynes.
The ICC continues its retrospective on Steve Martland, Friday at 10 p.m. at the Triskel Arts Center. Latvian voices present “Latvian Nature Sounds” Latvian Voices. a professional a cappella group from Latvia. Using their voice as their sole musical instrument, they have developed an individual vocal style, in which the sounds of ethnic music from many nations intertwine.
On Saturday 30 April at 8pm at Cork City Hall, the International Fleischmann Gala Concert The best amateur choirs compete for the International Fleischmann Trophy, one of the most prestigious choral prizes in Europe.
The annual Big Sing, which returns on Saturday April 30 at 4.15pm at Cork City Hall,
Sunday 1 May at 8pm at Cork City Hall, Closing Gala Concert International choirs will present choral music representative of their musical and ethnic backgrounds in a final concert.