Chamber Music, Early Music Review Print

Birding with Red Priest: Music for a Great Space Season Finale

April 4, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:

Red Priest's request that no applause greet their first appearance on the stage of Christ Methodist Church April 4 ought to have alerted everyone that they were in for something very unusual. Harpsichordist Howard Beach came on stage with binoculars, appearing to be looking for something. The other three players - violinist Julia Bishop, cellist Angela East and recorder player Piers Adams (their M.C.) - approached the stage via the center and side aisles, making very realistic bird sounds with their instruments. On stage, they immediately segued into a very brisk performance of "La Primavera" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons . For the second movement's episode of the "barking dog," Beach disappeared behind the harpsichord lid from which the "barking" of his baroque violin could be heard. His persistent "dog" wandered off stage and all around nearby, only to end up on his back while Adams patted "Doggie's" belly. Beach's harpsichord had a wonderfully warm sound, and it was amazing just how much of the missing orchestration of the Vivaldi he was able to suggest with his adroit keyboard skills.

Vivaldi's familiar program music - Adams called their version "Vivaldi Lite" - served as the centerpiece of this Music for a Great Space concert that was supplemented by similarly pictorial baroque concertos and short pieces. Clearly, if Red Priest sees a illustrative musical direction they go all out, no-holds-barred! After intermission, during "L'Autunno," the partying peasants didn't just sound drunken and doze off - the players did, too. All this "music as literal Performance Art" would be easily dismissed if the members were not also masters of instrumental technique. In "What Shall We Do this Evening," by Jacob Van Eyck (1590-1657), an astonishing tour de force, Adams played two fast melodies simultaneously on his sopranino recorder, and in the middle sections of The Seasons , he played two different sized recorders at the same time. The straightest performance of the evening was East's moving and unusually cleanly bowed Prelude in D Minor, for solo cello, by Bach. She explained that dendritic studies had identified the maker of her 1724 English cello and that the wood used had been felled in 1580.

From the Rosary Sonatas of Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), Red Priest played "The Crucifixion," the most dramatic. It features scordatura, the deliberate retuning of one or more strings for effect. Corelli's famous "Christmas Concerto," in G Minor, named for the concluding Pastorale movement, was also played. A four-movement suite - the Prelude, Fairy Dance, a weird Dance of the Followers of the Night, and a concluding Chaconne - presented a distilled version of Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen . East and Bishop added melodramatic "cackles" to "The Furies" of Nicholas Le Strange (17th century) and "The Witches' Dance," by Robert Johnson (1583-1633); both are from incidental music to stage plays.

Having heard and - crucially - seen Red Priest in full tilt, I can imagine buying a DVD (if one were available) but not one of their CDs, wherein the lack of the full performance context would make some of the sounds seem at unreasonable. During the concert, tempi were often at either extreme, and harsh sounds were not eschewed if dramatic cases could be made for them. Red Priest was by turns exhilarating and exasperating.