Madrigals featured at St. John's concert


Even music lovers who don't know beans about singing will respond to the artistry of I Fagiolini, the English vocal ensemble that will perform saucy sets of Elizabethan madrigals and 20th-century selections by Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc at St. John's College tomorrow evening.

That's because the group -- whose odd yet humorous name means the "String Beans" in Italian -- is one of the most interesting and accomplished ensembles on the international concert circuit.

Founded in 1986 while the singers were students at England's Oxford University, I Fagiolini gained notice among the cognoscenti by winning Britain's Early Music Network's Young Artists Competition.

Today, 17 years and 12 first-class recordings later, the singers are on the roster of England's prestigious Chandos label, which has released several of their forays into music of the Italian and English Renaissance.

Their most recent release, Thomas Tomkins -- Music Divine, spotlights the madrigals of Tomkins (1572-1656), an English Renaissance master whose handiwork will be on vocal display at the concert.

Another recent I Fagiolini release of the festive music of Renaissance Italy's Andrea Gabrieli, subtitled The Madrigal in Venice: Politics, Dialogues and Pastorales, was nominated for a Gramophone Award, Britain's highest honor for recorded classical music.

Feisty, energetic and unremittingly secular, the madrigal -- the popular song style of the Renaissance -- became one of that period's most enduring bequests to the music lovers of the future.

The joys of spring, the lure of the piper's dance and, of course, the ups and downs of love shared by the frolicsome nymphs and shepherds of Good Queen Bess' England were grist for the madrigalist's mill -- as ditties such as William Byrd's "This sweet and merry month of May" and Tomkins' "Phyllis, now cease to move me" will demonstrate at the St. John's concert.

Of course, these composers also could turn their sonorous, multivoiced style loose on sacred texts, which is where celestial motets such as Byrd's "Miserere mihi" and "Laudibus in sanctis" enter the program.

"Un soir de neige" ("A night of snow"), a set of haunting songs by Poulenc (1899-1963), will share the second half of the concert with Britten's "Eight Medieval Lyrics, Sacred and Profane," which marries contemporary musical sounds with poetry from the Middle Ages.

The I Fagiolini concert at 8:15 p.m. tomorrow in Francis Scott Key Auditorium at the Annapolis college is free and open to the public. No tickets or reservations are necessary.

St. John's has also announced that its Chamber Orchestra will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 in the college's Great Hall for a concert that will include Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 and Bedrich Smetana's tone poem "The Moldau."

Also, Key Auditorium will be the site of a concert by Washington's Left Bank String Quartet -- which will perform quartets by Mozart, Bela Bartok and Douglas Allanbrook -- at 8:15 p.m. Jan. 23. Allanbrook was a faculty member of St. John's College for 50 years until his death in January. The program will feature his Quartet No. 6, his final completed work.

These two college-sponsored events also are free and open to the public.

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