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The Virginia Gazette

February 2003


Red Priest ensemble, good music, good fun.

   There's absolutely nothing ordinary about the early music ensemble Red Priest, from its quirky costumes and innovative musical arrangements to its zany sense of humor and amazing virtuoso skills. In fact Red Priest is one of the most extraordinary ensembles on today's chamber music scene.

   What's particularly refreshing is the group's ability and desire to merge musical magic with mirth. Too often chamber music, as a class, suffers from a stereotypical description as stuffy and boring. While, no doubt, the jam-packed auditorium was made up of chamber music fans, there's the off-the-wall chance that among the multitude there might have been the newcomer. And there's the possibility that there might have been (and probably were) some who prefer to take chamber music very, very seriously. But laughter is also a good thing, especially in these days of international uncertainty.

   All of these factors made the presence of Red Priest all the more right for the times. What's not to like about good music—albeit occasionally offbeat in presentation—and good-natured fun? Red Priest offers that and more—total entertainment. The group, which takes its name after Vivaldi, who was a red-headed Catholic priest, specializes in baroque music. Much of what they perform has been transcribed to fit the violin, cello, harpsichord and recorder, the latter usually playing a transcribed violin part.

   The leader of this band of merry musicians is Piers Adams, considered one of the world's finest and most accomplished recorder players. And indeed, his virtuoso abilities are dazzling. His technical prowess, dexterity, and ability to play two recorders at the same time, frequently while dancing about the stage or lying on his back, defy adequate description. He's in a class by himself, as is Red Priest.


  The programming defines the ensemble's aim. This particular fare featured Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." But, Priest broke apart the suite and interspersed between its sections other works having thematic compatibility. For example, the "L'Estate," or summer portion of "Seasons," included Van Eyck's delightful "What Shall We Do" and Henry Purcell's "Midsummer Night's Dream Suite." And the "L'Autunno" or autumn portion featured Nicholas Le Strange's "Furies" and Robert Johnson's "Witches Dance," complete with the solo violinist cackling and hissing at the audience. Good fun.

  Priest also develops delightful story lines for its program. While describing the "L'Inverno" or winter portion of "Seasons," Adams talked about how the music represented the cold, icy, chilling winter winds and weather. As he described the music of the largo section, he exclaimed that the group got so cold they decided to chunk it and head to the Caribbean. A cute bit of dialogue quickly forgotten. But when the group got to the largo section, it broke into an island rhythm version of the score. An inspired and simply hilarious maneuver.

   Not that it was all playful fun. Far from it. One has only to reflect on the somber nature and exquisite sensitivity of Julia Bishop's rendering of Heinrich Biber's Easter Sonata, "The Crucifixion," as part of the "La Primavera" or spring section, or cellist Angela East's soulful playing of Bach's Prelude in D minor in the autumn section to realize the depth of feeling and sincerity that is this group's foundation.

   Sure, there's much fun with Priest. But always at the surface is awareness of the group's superb musicianship and individual and corporate virtuoso abilities. The evening was just what was needed for this moment in time. Music and laughter. Not a bad combination for any season.

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