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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Red Priest’s Masterful, Joyous Early Music

Classical Review

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There are people who are simply born to perform. In front of an audience these crowd-pleasing individuals become what one can only guess is their liveliest and best selves. Despite what may be enormous talent, very few classical musicians have this quality. The members of Red Priest are among them. This United Kingdom-based ensemble gave a smashingly successful, sold-out concert last Saturday night at Wisconsin Lutheran College, the Early Music Now season finale.

Experienced concertgoers know that groups specializing in Baroque, Renaissance and Medieval music have long since lost the dry self-consciousness of the 1970s and ’80s. Some acts go further, making entertainment of early music. Even among them, Red Priest stands out. Its charming British silliness might fall flat if not backed up by virtuoso playing.  For this “Pirates of the Baroque” program the four musicians entered wearing wacky red and black pirate garb. Musical piracy of various kinds (“stolen masterworks”) followed, introduced with grace and wit, and performed with glee.

Red Priest is comprised of Piers Adams on a variety of recorders, David Greenberg on violin, Angela East on cello, and Howard Beach on harpsichord. Like only the very best musicians, they play with a balance of both freedom and discipline. Adams reached heights of recorder playing I didn’t think were possible, taking the limited inherent sound of his instrument into extraordinary variety.

Ensemble tightness and natural balance were remarkable. A crisp rhythmic spirit was constantly present. This ensemble, by necessity, creates most of its own wildly creative arrangements, often featuring blazing bravura and lickety-split precision. Whether playing Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi (whose nickname is the group’s namesake), or lesser-known composers, Red Priest’s playful arrangements point up the relationship of Baroque music to the jigs and reels of folk music.

All through the concert I tried to find in my mind’s memory classical musicians who have Red Priest’s comic edge, but found few. Victor Borge and Canadian Brass are distant cousins. Classical music is a wide world. There is more than ample room in it for those who are talented and innovative enough to find new kinds of lighthearted joy. 

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