The Pittsburgh Tribune (USA)
30th September 2002
Quartet's antics bring mirth to 'Four Seasons'
Antonio Vivaldi met the musical Marx Brothers at the opening of the Renaissance & Baroque Society of Pittsburgh's 34th season Saturday night at Synod Hall.
Red Priest, a quartet of stellar English early music musicians, signaled the evening’s playful theatricality right from the start. They approached the stage from all sides, including marching up the aisles, playing a wild cacophony of bird calls and other nature sounds. Their attire was anything but formal. Recorder player Piers Adams and violinist Julia Bishop wore outfits fit for court jesters while cellist Julia East wore a coat adorned with magician’s symbols.
The "Carnival of the Seasons" theme featured Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons" interspersed with other seasonal music, and all was performed with an engaging mixture of facetiousness and artistry.
"The Four Seasons" in its original version is a set of four concerti for violin and chamber orchestra, collectively among the most popular and often-performed classical works. Red Priest offered what Adams joked was a budget version for four players, but its gags played off the music’s familiarity.
Some of the amusement came from the quartet's antics. Adams is a recorder player of staggering virtuosity and reliability. He took most of the violin solos, although one was fabulously played by the cellist. Twice he played two recorders simultaneously, like a few jazz saxophonists have done.
When he portrayed the stag killed in a hunt in "Autumn," he played his death scene flat on his back, with his instrument pointed straight up. And the way violinist Bishop followed him earlier while portraying his faithful dog, part of Vivaldi's program expressed in poems that go with each of the concerti, was a hoot.
All the musicians have real stage presence. East often performed with her cello hung like a guitar, and other times bowed the instrument standing up. When she and Bishop performed "The Witches Dance" by Robert Johnson, they added hissing and other sounds, with East’s final cackle a real joy.
Some performances were relatively straight. Bishop gave a superbly focused reading of Heinrich Biber’s East Sonata, "The Crucifixion," from his set of 15 Rosary Sonatas. Only interpolated hand claps by harpsichordist Howard Beach were foreign to the score.
While the recorder player offered intensely musical and astonishingly colorful performances all evening, his transcription of Jacob von Eyck’s "What Shall We Do This Evening?" was the most amazing. Adams maintained the clarity of the music’s voices on his single-line instrument amid what would have been, in lesser hands, a bewildering rush of notes.