Conductor, singer, teacher, soon-to-be artistic director of Stour music festival: Robert Hollingworth’s commitment to early music is plain to see. He speaks to Toby Deller

As founder and director of vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth has been responsible for three decades of performing and recording, with shows such as The Full Monteverdi, Tallis in Wonderland and Betrayal (on the life and music of Gesualdo) making up a notable track record of creativity and invention. So it is perhaps fitting that his next project will focus on Leonardo da Vinci, coinciding with the 500th anniversary in 2019 of his death. The project, which will tour and be released on Coro Classics, will look at da Vinci’s art and reflect it in music from the century that followed him, and also in more recent times.

‘The first thing to say is that Leonardo’s first job outside Florence, if you believe what was said about him at the time, was as a musician. How many people know that? We all know about his inventing, his drawing and the military machines that he was claiming to be able to design, but for the move away from home he seems to have been employed as a musician. He left no music beyond one clever word game, but he must have come across Josquin as they were both in Milan at the same time. His was a continuously enquiring mind: the reason so much of his stuff was left unfinished is because he always saw the next question.’

That, of course, is not really an option for a professional music ensemble. As someone who talks of having a ‘lifelong belief that musicians sometimes need to think about what it’s like to be in the audience receiving music as opposed to just thinking: “this is music I want to throw at an audience”’, he clearly does not want to leave listeners short-changed, even if he acknowledges that some of the more elaborate productions take a lot of time to develop and rehearse.

‘Sometimes simply standing there and performing is absolutely what it needs. Other times the context of the text behind the music makes very little sense to us: the formality and old-fashioned style of the poetry from 400 years ago doesn’t mean much to a listener in the way that the composer might have meant it. So you have to think: what are the ways you can help with that?’

He is now adding another outlet for this approach as he becomes artistic director of the early music-based Stour Festival, the third countertenor in the role following Alfred and Mark Deller. So he is currently putting together ideas for his first programme in 2020. ‘With Stour the venue and the times of the concerts are fixed but, certainly without scaring off our core audience, I’ll be tinkering at the edges, trying to add to what they’ve already achieved.’

Hollingworth, who still sings in I Fagiolini, has an approach to conducting that puts a premium on performers and the art being performed. ‘I’m interested in the music and how to get the singers to do that, and I find the more you conduct, the less singers listen to each other.’ So, like the dramaturg who does not appear on stage in a piece of devised theatre, a way of working that could be used to describe some of I Fagiolini’s programmes, he is happy to step to one side on stage. Realising that this was a possibility came early on in his career when working with a student group that preceded I Fagiolini.

‘I just worked out that the final performance in that particular case would be better if there weren’t somebody in the front because it got in the way of the poetry. And the musicians didn’t need it, just some coaching on the music itself – they didn’t need someone to beat time or encourage them to be more passionate in the performance. But I absolutely don’t have hard and fast rules on this: it depends on the repertoire, it depends on the performance you’re in.’

Hollingworth, once a student at New College Oxford where he sang under Edward Higginbottom, now teaches at the University of York. He is reader in music and runs a (very practical) masters course in solo-voice ensemble singing. He also conducts a university’s vocal group, The 24. He agrees that having that particular academic job gives him something of a laboratory for his own ideas, although he stresses that the key focus is using his experience with I Fagiolini to help young singers develop their understanding as performers.

‘It’s not just about producing the perfect choral sound, it’s about them understanding the music that they are doing. And understanding that what they are doing in their singing lessons needs to feed into the sound they produce as choral singers so they can sing honestly and not manufacture something choral that isn’t “them”. A lot is talked about English choral blend; my take on this is that English vowels, if you compare them with Mediterranean vowels, are quite dark and missing brighter shades.’ He goes on: ‘So the English choral blend is like a lot of beautiful greys if you like. I like the odd Italian or Spanish bit of orange and red!’


1966  born Ashtead

1975-80  chorister at Hereford Cathedral

1985-1988 choral scholar at New College Oxford, studying music

1986 founds I Fagiolini

2004-7 The Full Monteverdi (live and film)

2006 Royal Philharmonic Society ensemble award with I Fagiolini

2010  Gramophone Award for Striggio 40-part Mass

2012 appointed reader in music, University of York

2018 announced as artistic director, Stour Music (from 2020)