Red Priest Bedevils 'Nightmare'
It may be
two weeks early, but Halloween came to the Simms Center for the Performing
Arts on Sunday afternoon. At least that's how the concert began. One
doesn't usually associate ghoulish masks, spooky lighting and animated
leaping about the stage with Baroque music, nor with such a concert
title as “Nightmare in Venice.” But with the imaginative quartet Red
Priest, named after the nickname of composer Antonio Vivaldi, period
music takes on a lively new persona.
Fifty years ago, early-music performance was often little more than
a few musicology professors getting together and saying, “Well, chaps,
let's have a go at this.” Then came the era of virtuoso players. Now
comes Red Priest. From the country that spawned Mick Jagger, these players
add another level of adventure to their concerts. Yet their innovations
are hardly beyond the rampant ostentatiousness of that era, usually
bankrolled by royal courts with money to burn. For if anything characterizes
the art of the Baroque, it is spectacle — visual or aural, or better
One may think
of the music of this period as elegant and
graceful, as assuredly it can be when so intended. But the term “baroque”
literally means bizarre or odd-shaped or even grotesque, and it is that
aspect of the style that Red Priest enjoys exploiting. That's not in
any way to say that the group doesn't produce beautiful music in its
own extroverted terms. Indeed, it takes musicians of the highest caliber
to make this kind of theatrical presentation work.
Piers Adams, spokesman for the group and recorder player
extraordinaire, demonstrates a nearly superhuman breath control and
finger dexterity, playing a host of various-sized instruments, almost
enough to plumb a small bungalow.
Beginning on a dark stage and disguised in black masks, the
group gave an eerie performance of Vivaldi's “La Notte” Concerto, here
renamed The Nightmare Concerto. A suite of English theater music ended
in the “Witches' Dance” with violinist David Greenberg transformed into
a cackling hag. Moving amongst the audience like buskers, Adams and
Greenberg gracefully matched each other in Purcell's “Two in One Upon
In the second half each had a turn in the spotlight. Angela
East, one of early music's premier cellists, gave a ravishing Prelude
from Bach's Suite No. 5 for solo cello, depth of feeling equaling the
formidable technical challenges.
Adams then entered from the back of the hall with an
outrageously flamboyant set of variations based on bird song in “The
English Nightingale.” Greenberg, in his turn, ripped through the virtuosity
of Tartini's “Devil's Trill” Sonata, portraying a violinist who has
sold his soul to the devil. Ultimately he was joined by harpsichordist
Howard Beach to complete the work.
A set of variations on the popular tune “La Folia” pushed the
limits of the style by including a sensuous Middle Eastern interlude
and some quasi-jazz syncopations, only to finish unexpectedly on a dime.
One thing is for certain. After Red Priest, you'll never again hear
Baroque music in quite the same way.