Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The hilarious sacrileges of Red Priest

Red Priest in action.
It's hard not to get a kick out of Red Priest (above), a British baroque ensemble that injects a little 80's metal attitude into the early music scene (I really wish there was an umlaut in their logo) - so no wonder they have a growing following among fans of period performance. Surprisingly, however, they don't much mimic Judas Priest, the "metal gods" their sobriquet recalls (perhaps because they're actually named after Vivaldi, a priest whose auburn locks earned him the nickname il Prete Rosso).  Instead, these Priests favor power chords and lightning-fast bowing rather than the majestically dumb crunch of early metal - so they're really more speed or thrash baroque.  Then again, you could make a case that their costuming, though definitely doomy, also favors the Renaissance-fair stylings of 70's bands like Heart.  So maybe they're thrash-folk-metal-baröque (and there's the place for that umlaut!!).

But whatever their VH-1 antecedents, Red Priest mostly plays their namesake's music; indeed, their funny but frustrating concert last Sunday up at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival (in the gorgeous Shalin Liu Performance Center, at top), featured the entire Four Seasons (in a stripped-down version which has become their calling card) as well as La Notte, a less-often-heard but spookily atmospheric concerto (that the Priests played in masks and their best Satanic-orgy duds).  The rest of the concert - titled, appropriately enough, "Venetian Carnival" - was filled out with the usual suspects: Corelli, Gabrielli, and more obscure (but still worthy) composers who roughly overlapped with Vivaldi in the heyday of the Italian baroque.

Indeed, it seemed the more obscure you were, the better your chances of getting a really fabulous performance from Red Priest; they may have piled the stage histrionics on Vivaldi, but they kept things relatively simple for the likes of Dario Castello and Giovanni Paulo Cima (I know - who?), whose gorgeous sonatas were given richly wrought interpretations sans everything but brilliant musicianship.  The offerings from Gabrielli and Corelli were if anything even better - indeed, the spirited variations on Corelli's eloquent La Folia constituted perhaps the most striking performance of the concert.

For make no mistake, Red Priest boasts some serious musical chops - both violinist David Greenberg and harpsichordist David Wright are certifiably world-class, capable of sparkling passage work and sudden stretches of aching lyricism (and perhaps coincidentally, they seemed the least prone to onstage mugging).  But then I shouldn't forget their cellist, Angela East, who is also quite accomplished - and the best comedian of the lot, frankly.  But these three tended to be upstaged in the big production numbers by recorder wizard Piers Adams, who's a bit of a ham, and whose fallback mode is extreme speed (the better to impress us, my dear!).  Virtuosic speed of course can be wildly impressive, but it's rarely deeply expressive (there's just no time for that), and as Adams seemed intent on breaking the land speed record for Vivaldi, we often had to suffer through banging bowing from the string players and shrieking high notes from his smallest recorders.

All this made The Four Seasons musically disappointing, even though there were plenty of good, funny stage ideas in the Priests' performance - which cleverly dramatized Vivaldi's musical scene painting (love-struck shepherds, calling birds, summer storms, etc.).  Watching the show - I couldn't quite call it a concert - I often found myself laughing out loud, but also sometimes wondered, "Can't we have all this and really great music-making, too?"  It's not an impossible dream; when Il Giardino Armonico came to town last spring, they may have channeled Elvis Costello but they played impeccably at the same time.  Red Priest, by way of contrast, may bless their obscurities with some serious attention to detail, but when it comes to the music of their namesake, the elusive consummation of rock-star theatricality and sublime period musicianship remains something devoutly to be wished.

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