Classical Music

Early Music Festival

Red Priest

Indiana History Center

July 29 and 31

This was the weekend early-music lovers and the newly initiated have been waiting for: the return of those four astonishing-but-fancy-free London musicians calling themselves the Red Priest. Named after Antonio Vivaldi (1676-1741) - the "red priest" of Venice - recorder player and founder Piers Adams, violinist Julia Bishop, cellist Angela East and harpsichordist Howard Beach start with standard Baroque-period music (c1600-1750) and literally take off from there. Not being shackled by music scores or stands (yes, folks, it's all memorized) or limited imaginations, they walk while they play - while they talk. It's show-biz, it's arrangements, it's entertainment, it's rock city without the decibels - it's a hoot. But the Red Priest deliver much more than ordinary shtick: They are top-flight musicians and students of the Baroque era who know exactly what-the-hell they're doing. Red Priest

Formed in 1998, the Red Priest first appeared in this Festival Music Society sponsored summer series in 2002; ever since, we've wanted them back. FMS musical director Frank Cooper engaged them this time for two concerts - the last for this summer. Friday's had the theme, "Pirates of the Baroque." - referring to "pirating" music of the period and rearranging it. All four players were dressed in colorful, ersatz pirate outfits, Beach wearing several head scarf's in succession - while seated at the harpsichord (use your imagination if you weren't there). They began with an arrangement of the famous Bach "Preludio" from his solo-violin Partita in E, BWV 1006. With four players, it had to be harmonized; Adams announced that it would be "quarterized." It worked.

Then came the "Gypsy" Sonata in A Minor by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). This was the first in a series of pieces in which our players added accelerandos and ritardandos, speeding up and slowing down the music in accordance with its mood - and making it convincing in the bargain. Then, taking a piece by the overrated François Couperin (1668-1733), Pièces fantastiques for cello and harpsichord, Red Priest added harmonies and concealed some of the composer's excessive, mortifying mordents (ornamented turns), making it into a thing one could actually enjoy.

Of course their namesake had to be represented. Before the "interval" (so listed in the program booklet), we heard Vivaldi's Concerto in D Minor, one of a countless number from "L'Estro Armonico." In the second half came a Bach trio sonata for flute and harpsichord, Adams playing a "pizzicato" recorder line in the opening movement and his monstrous "baritone" recorder in the slow movement. Friday's concert ended with Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor, entitled "The Sea Storm" - again with many speed-ups and slow-downs. Its rousing finish presaged an even more interesting Sunday concert.

Both concerts saw expected full houses, enthusiastic audiences leading to standing ovations and one encore for each. Sunday's theme, "Carnival of the Seasons," not too surprisingly featured Vivaldi's most famous set of violin concertos, "The Four Seasons." Interspersed among them, the Red Priest inserted various other season-related works.

Opening with Vivaldi's "Spring," our players of course recast it for their instrumental complement while adding apropos spring sounds: chirping birds, bubbling streams and thunder. As Adams' recorders tend to dominate, he departed while Bishop took front and center for the Easter Sonata: "The Crucifixion" by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). Her violin playing is equally impressive though more subdued. Adams then returned with a dazzling recorder solo: "What Shall We Do This Evening?" by Jacob van Eyck (1590-1657). If Adams has a peer on his instrument, it can only be Mexico's Horacio Franco, prominent in the FMS's concerts of the '90s.

Aside from their remaining takes on the Vivaldi "Seasons," the Red Priest's Angela East played a lovely, "straight" version of the opening Prelude from Bach's Suite No. 2 in D Minor for unaccompanied cello. The foursome also offered uniquely ingratiating sonics for Arcangelo Corelli's "Christmas" Concerto.

These players are so dazzling with their purely musical abilities that one could forgive their occasionally excessive stage hijinks. In any case, the sooner they return, the sooner the FMS' Early Music Festival will again be vitalized to its utmost.

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