Peripatetic Priest(s) 

Red Priest
Early Music Festival
Indiana History Center
July 26-27

It’s three years later, and they were at it again. Last Saturday and Sunday, the Red Priest of London, named for Antonio Vivaldi — the “red priest” of Venice — returned to Indy to climax this summer’s Early Music Festival series, sponsored by the Festival Music Society of Indiana. Successfully mixing Baroque scholarship with show biz and doing it almost effortlessly — walking, cart wheeling, playing on one’s knees, even assuming seductive positions, their peripatetic antics made possible by memorizing their program from start to finish (a few times excepting the harpsichordist) — Red Priest’s four players present a near perfect symbiosis of entertainment and edification.

The group’s leader, Piers Adams, dominated the proceedings with dazzling progressions on many, various-sized recorders. Supporting him were violinist Julia Bishop, cellist Angela East (who holds her instrument between her legs like a viola da gambist but plays it like a cello) and harpsichordist Howard Beach. Of the four, the exceptional virtuosos are Adams and Beach. All of them are consummate musicians.

Saturday’s program was entitled “Pirates of the Baroque: The Second Voyage,” indicating that their first “voyage” was their program three years ago (who can remember?). Wearing red and black “pirate” outfits, they took examples of late French and Italian Baroque pieces (17th and 18th centuries), doctored them, massaged them, rearranged them and inculcated them with their shtick. Composers such as Jean-Marie Leclair, George Frideric Handel and Vivaldi himself had their pieces altered just enough to give them a maritime theme. One work that required less doctoring was Giovanni Simonetti’s Sonata in C minor, “La Burrasca” (“The Sea-Storm”). A similar degree of massaging was required for Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor, with the same title. Much of the rearranging was done to make a piece compatible with the group’s instrumentation.

Perhaps the most interesting adaptation was made by Beach in his assemblage of works by François Couperin, with Beach’s title, “Pirates of the Baroque.” Here he vastly improved on his model, making sparks fly from music usually mannered and pedestrian.

Sunday’s concert featured all-Johann Sebastian Bach, who stands like a colossus over all other early music composers — indeed, some would even remove “early music” from that tribute. A potpourri of 16 selections was offered, eight in each half. No matter how straight-laced Bach is performed, his genius always punches through. Alternatively, no matter how much Bach is embellished, embroidered, reconstructed, nuanced in any manner — as the Red Priest demonstrated — the Leipzig Master’s light shines forth undiminished.

In fact, hearing what this group does with well-known pieces like the Minuet and Badinerie from the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, the utterly lovely Largo from the Two-violin Concerto in D Minor and the world-famous organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor — the program’s final three offerings — shows Bach’s musical prowess in a new, refreshing manner. The D Minor Toccata capped this early music series to perfection.

The FMS’ new-this-season artistic director, Mark Cudek (“Soodek”) of Baltimore — an early music performer himself — has taken the series over completely, making it his own. Besides adding much of his own informal commentary, Cudek has each performing group on stage to discuss the music and the properties of their period instruments for some 15 to 20 minutes before each concert — something not previously done. 



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