If British vocal ensemble I Fagiolini ever get tired of being named after beans they could consider adopting the name of the Australian think-tank that is presenting pre-concert talks for Musica Viva’s 2015 season. The Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions seems an equally appropriate name for this eight-strong ensemble, who gave their first Melbourne concert at the Recital Centre on Tuesday night.
Comprised of a countertenor (their Director, Robert Hollingworth), two sopranos, a mezzo soprano, two tenors, a baritone and a bass, I Fagiolini demonstrated not only technical excellence but a palpable desire to share with their audience the emotional breadth of 500 years of Western vocal music.
They did this not only through theatrical performance of the sung texts but through Hollingworth’s engaging introductions. He is a natural communicator with an educator’s gift for bringing his program to life with salient details. Hollingworth ensured that the nature and context of each item was clear to the audience without ever testing its patience. As a vocal ensemble, I Fagiolini has no weak links and is a flawlessly blended whole, while still allowing its singers individuality of voice.
Book-ended with Victoria’s Alma redemptoris mater (1581) at one end and Adrian Williams’ Hymn to Awe (2012) at the other, I Fagiolini’s more or less chronological program was otherwise devoted to secular repertoire. Three Monteverdi madrigals of love lost or unrequited from the concert’s first half were performed with pinpoint accuracy and sensitivity; nowhere more so than in the final, repeated line of Ohime il bel viso: “But the wind has carried these words away”, delivered in heartstopping hushed desolation.
These had their counterparts in the second half of the program, in Poulenc’s Sept chansons of 1936, which, as Hollingworth explained, Poulenc composed shortly after having performed a concert of Monteverdi madrigals. Settings of surrealists texts by Apollonaire and Eluard, these elusive miniatures are divided by centuries from Monteverdi’s world, yet also seem part of it thanks to a common facility for capturing poetic mood in the vocal writing. They were exquisitely sung and a joy to discover: I hope I Fagiolini record them.
The rest of the program had a distinctly buffa flavor, including Janequin’s rollicking La Chasse of 1537, a vocal evocation of a royal stag hunt, which Hollingworth aptly described as a Brueghel painting in sound. Featuring grumbling servants, animal dropping inspections, and then galloping horses and trumpeting horns once the chase is on, this seven-minute romp was delivered with a combination of technical precision and nursery school enthusiasm that you don’t get to witness every day.
Croce’s eight-part madrigal; Il gioce dell’occa, (The Game of the Goose) (1595) was a similarly spirited evocation of eight characters engaged in a renaissance board game. Australian composer Andrew Schultz’ Le Moliere imaginaire, commissioned by Musica Viva for this concert tour, received a gutsy performance from the group, and was a polished, if not quite laugh-out-loud, attempt to update Moliere’s lampooning of quackery.
This beautifully crafted program opens and closes with musical evocations of the suprahuman. Created 500 years apart, the Victoria prayer and the Williams hymn contain all the clamorous human drama played out in-between with music as elemental and comforting as the roll of waves on the beach. Each is also a distilled example of just how profound an experience music for unamplified human voices can be in a good acoustic. It’s an engaging circular journey, which the encore (no spoilers) did nothing to disturb.
It’s a great idea for Musica Viva to collaborate with the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion on pre-concert talks. For I Fagiolini’s concert, Professor Jane Davidson of the University of Melbourne provides an overview of some anthropological and psychological theories about the chicken-egg relationship between singing and humanity: how singing came into being (noting, as she goes, that Indigenous Australians might instead ask how singing brought things into being) and how fundamental singing is to human relationship.
What brings people together to sing or to hear others sing? It’s an important question for audience builders in arts companies and a question that Il Fagiolini’s concert essays in an enjoyable and often arrestingly beautiful program.