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Music Culture Reviews (Australia)

October 2003

Derrida Does Dynamics:

Red Priest in Concert

Brisbane Conservatorium Theatre

October 1st 2003

When a group prides itself – no, markets itself – on challenging accepted practice, then one has to expect something radical in their performance. Red Priest, actively opposing the formal, academic Early Music movement, does not disappoint in this regard. Unlike many who take radical stances, however, they back theirs up with genuine skill. The institution has not rejected them, but they, rather, have rejected the institution. Much is gained thereby, but what, if anything, is lost?

Wednesday night’s concert was a fascinating exercise in changing the perceptions of genre performance. Baroque music is generally associated with introverted types who agonize for months over whether a trill should begin on the upper or lower note. The performances in the last decade or so of energetic groups such as Il Giardino Armonico have started to change this idea, but Red Priest go further, turning their concert into a semi-staged experience. They play by memory, and are thus freed from the limitations of music stands and such accoutrements, so can move about happily, interacting in various ways with each other while they play.

The group is led by recorder player Piers Adams, who has an incredibly fluent technique and gets a huge sound from his instruments. He is indisputably the star of the show, and is a virtuoso of the first rank. Julia Bishop is the violinist, and has a command over her instrument that puts many other baroque specialists to shame, whilst Angela East attacks the ’cello with verve and precision. Howard Beach rounds out the group as harpsichordist and straight man to Adams’ humour. His continuo playing is astonishing and sensitive, but I would have liked to have heard him on a more robust instrument than the rather mannered double manual chosen.

In a way, the choice of music for this concert didn’t really matter. One goes to hear Red Priest deconstruct works and reassemble them in ways that are sometimes bizarre, but often revealing. A particularly strong example of this was in their interpretation of the masque music of seventeenth-century England, complete with vocal effects and staged movement.

The masque as a genre may not have been faithfully re-created here in a historical sense, but I can’t help feeling that they managed to capture something of the spirit in a way that most modern performances of this music don’t. Hissing at the audience and bending sinuously during a Witches Dance is actually pretty effective when applied to music that is so strongly programmatic in the first place.

Given this, however, there were two pieces that didn’t quite come off for me. One was a Bach flute sonata in which the obbligato part, originally for harpsichord, was taken up in varying degrees by the violin and ’cello, whilst Adams gave the flute part on the alto recorder. Here, I feel that the movement away from the precision and balance of Bach’s harmonic ideas actually just detracted from the music rather than adding something new. The other piece that left me cold was also Bach. East chose the first movement of the C Minor suite for solo ‘cello, but, interesting and musical though her performance was, it didn’t seem to sit well within the context of the rest of the programme.

Such minor quibbles aside, every other piece was something of a revelation and a joy. Perhaps the most affecting moment was the surprisingly ‘straight’ version of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, played with a musicality that should surely silence any critics who feel that the group are unable to approach the musically sublime. Most spectacular of all was the finale, where the ensemble literally attacked Vivaldi’s La Notte concerto, appearing in black cloaks and hoods and capering about menacingly. Finally, the spotlight lingered on Beach, who turned his head from the harpsichord to reveal a Scream mask covered in blood. Music about nightmares became intertwined with images of popular culture and, whilst the overall effect was comic, it also served to emphasise something of the postmodern about their musical approach.

So is anything lost in such a performance? I think there can be no debate that much was passed over in the music on which a more traditional ensemble may have lingered, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indisputably, new and exciting things were discovered along the way. The vitality and virtuosity that Red Priest bring to their concerts is inspiring to musicians and audiences who might otherwise be trapped in the institutionalized conservatism of the historical performance practice movement.

Barnaby Ralph

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