KS Q&A: Robert Hollingworth

Director, I Fagiolini 

Anniversary Reader, University of York

If you had to give an aspiring vocal ensemble just one piece of advice, what would it be?
To enjoy it – the singers should be there for their own pleasure – then it should give pleasure to others.

How you were introduced to ensemble singing?
I was a chorister at Hereford Cathedral aged 9-14 and also heard The King’s Singers around that time! I was also brought into a school Renaissance ensemble (a few voices and instruments) by a Latin teacher, Dick Rhodes who had huge enthusiasm.

What’s the first thing you look at when you open a score for the first time?
Whether it’s a good edition, whether I could perform the piece, whether it’s a good piece: these are simultaneous.

If and when you have to programme a concert, what factors influence you most?
What has the audience heard in the same series?  Has the promoter given us certain parameters?  Is the audience likely to have an open mind?  Will they appreciate a particularly Fagiolini-esque take on repertoire or should we be gentle with them?

How rigidly do you like to keep to a score in performance?
The earlier you go, the less the score (the way one reads it now) is likely to represent exactly how the composer imagined the piece.  So understanding the context of the score is everything.  For example, 16th century music was generally underlaid (given text) in the original partbooks but this doesn’t necessarily imply vocal performance.

What, for you, are the marks of a great composition for vocal ensembles?
I’m reminded of the scene in ‘Dead Poets Society’ when the boys were reading from a book which quantified what was a good poem and Robin Williams’ character told them to rip out the page. You could talk about expressive use of harmony, powerful individual vocal lines, judicious use of the voices.  But you could have a great piece which had none of these!

What, in your opinion, makes a great ensemble singer?
Technical things: subtle command of their instrument (extremely demanding) an acute ear to enable singing with as close to acoustically pure intervals as possible; good rhythm, good languages. You must be a good listener (to the other parts) too.

Then personal things; you must be a generous human character and definitely have a good sense of humour.

Do you have any pet-hates when you hear choirs or vocal ensembles perform?
I get particularly annoyed by ideas superimposed on the music that have nothing to do with it: mannered articulation, that sort of thing.

Is there anything that you do when you perform, rehearse, compose or conduct that others might find unusual?  (quirks, tricks, useful tips)
I tend to perform naked.

If you could have had a different career, what do you think it would have been, and why?
I wanted to be…… a LUMBERJACK.

Are you able to say why you particularly love choral music?
The vocal ensemble (especially the solo-voice ensemble) is potentially the most sophisticated musical ensemble in the world. This is not empty boasting about our genre: it’s a fact.  The range of colours that any voice can produce are so much wider than any instrument because for every sound we make, we can alter it by changing the vowel.  When you multiply that in an ensemble, you have an extraordinarily versatile and varied musical generator so the possibilities are endless.  I’m surprised that more composers have not written for voices without text – the range of the harmonic spectrum is so wide.

Do you have a favourite choral composer and, if so, whom and why?
Choral – Poulenc, I think.  His harmonic language is beautifully distinctive but the colours to be found in it through singing French are achingly wonderful.

For solo-voice ensemble, Monteverdi. No-one else comes close.  The intensity and passion of his writing is so far beyond his contemporaries that had he died before his madrigal books had been written, I think we would all be less interested in music of that period today.

Is there a piece for choirs or vocal ensembles you’d like to recommend to us that we might not have heard of before?
For choirs, Try Adrian Williams ‘Silent night’. It’s a new composition not an arrangement.  For solo-voice ensembles, his ‘A Smile and Ashes’ is a fantastic piece and devastatingly powerful.

This might be a good place to mention a Masters course (MA) in Solo-Voice-Ensemble Singing at the University of York which I am now running, following the original set up by John Potter of the Hilliard Ensemble, a few years back.

Is there anyone or any group in the world of choirs and vocal ensembles that you admire particularly, either current performers or groups from the past?
Andrew Parrott – he has such an enquiring mind and a good ear.  Also, of course, The Kings Singers.  They taught me that it’s ok to sing music and enjoy yourself.

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

If yes, will you tell us what it is?

Read all the KS Q&As on the Ensemble Hub Dropbox.


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