At the Rockport Chamber Music Festival last Sunday, July 10, Red Priest came sneaking on stage, all got up in red and black, cloaked and hooded, faces hidden, playing their namesake Vivaldi’s spookiest concerto, La Notte. The rest of the first half of the program was devoted to a chronological progression through various forms of Italian sonatas and ensemble pieces, tracing the development of the genre from Bassano in the sixteenth century, through Domenico Gabrielli and Corelli in the late seventeenth, so that after the intermission they could return once more to Vivaldi, and play the ever-popular Four Seasons. A pleasing and interesting program altogether, independently of the trimmings which Red Priest’s reputation leads one to expect.
All live performances, however traditional, necessarily contain an element of performance in its broadest sense – a musician is, after all, seen as well as heard, and stage setting, clothes and stage presence are a large part of a musical performance. When these elements are treated as conservatively as possible, they can be set aside without discussion, particularly in a review. It would be neither appropriate nor polite to mention, ordinarily, that some lady’s stage gown struck you as unflattering, or that some man’s dress suit was urgently in need of being ironed. But Red Priest, by being overtly unconventional, both in stage dress and stage manners, demands that their performance be considered as a whole, not merely as music divorced from a visual experience.
First, then, the costumes. Playing la Notte in hoods and cloaks made a highly amusing opening. Nor was there anything inherently unsuccessful in the costumes themselves – red coats (vaguely piratical) and red shirts would not be impossible choices even for more conventional performers. But when you wear something that conspicuous, you know that people are going to be looking, and you had better make sure that it will stand up to scrutiny. These particular cloaks and hoods would have stood muster in a hastily contrived Hallowe’en costume, aided by night’s shadows, but were not up to scratch for a daytime performance against the brilliant backlighting of Rockport’s open window. The fabric was so thin it was transparent, without any flattering drape or swirl, and the white tags were awkwardly evident. Moreover, the recorder player’s red coat looked a size or so too big for him, and the cellist’s sparkly top was verging so closely on purple that it jarred with the scarlet of the other three. If you choose to perform in carnival dress, let it at least be well made.
As to Rockport’s famous window, I wonder if it was the wisest decision to leave it unshuttered. It makes a lovely backdrop, but a quiet New England bay, all blue and green, dotted with boats and soaring gulls, does not really match any of the programmatic aspects of the program – neither a ghost-filled Venetian carnival night, nor the Four Season’s careful depiction of the Italian countryside.
Now to the question of stage presence. The freedom and ease with which Red Priest moves about the stage while playing (including the cellist, and occasionally even the harpsichordist) is indeed engaging and enviable. Their enjoyment is infectious and their ensemble playing formidably crisp. It soon becomes obvious, however, in spite of a program artfully designed to give everyone a chance to be the center of attention, that the real clowns of the group are the violinist, David Greenberg, and – even more so – the recorder player, Piers Adams. They dance, they posture, they joke; Adams switches about between recorders of all sizes from the twittery garklein, almost small enough to swallow, to the lovely hooting bass, and even, at times, playing two recorders simultaneously, in harmony with each other. I wish, though, that he had not spoken at quite such length between la Notte and the following pieces, and between movements of the Four Seasons. A few words of welcome after la Notte might be charming, but a full description of the next six pieces, however entertainingly delivered, is distracting, particularly when all the information is included in the program notes anyway. And I do wonder at their decision to pile even more programmatic ideas onto the already intricately programmatic Four Seasons. So many layers was getting confusing, and I for one spent most of that part of the performance switching my attention frantically back and forth between the stage, the summary of Vivaldi’s program, and the description of Red Priest’s own even more elaborate additions. Besides, their acting was quite sufficiently good enough for the fragmentary story-line to be clear without both spoken and printed description.
And now, at last, to the music. Piers Adams, as mentioned above, is a prodigious virtuoso, and together with David Greenberg, Angela East (’cello), and David Wright (harpsichord), they make a very fine ensemble indeed. Their coordination, technique and sense of timing are all first-rate. After a while, however, I began to get an impression that they had – perhaps deliberately – restricted themselves to a few colors and characters: furiously fast and loud, alternating with comically slow and drunken passages, and moving between the two either with the sharpest of jumps or the longest of accelerandos or ritardandos. These are all entertaining, valuable, useful devices, but when an entire program is constructed using nothing but them, it becomes, after a while, monotonous. Similarly, the games they play with throwing in anachronistic elements – a variation of la Folia that turned into boogie-woogie, rock-band style cadences with wild distortions and harmonics, a random fragment of the Elgar concerto, and other things – are also entertaining, but when they are used in every piece, they no longer seem so fresh and unexpected. These are all things that could be hilarious and enchanting if they cropped up here and there in a program, but they’re everywhere, it starts to grow predictable. And it is not as though they would not grip the audience if they played a piece without shenanigans – their playing is quite exciting enough without jokes, and if they did less, the jokes, when they came, might be even more effective.
There is one aspect of the performance, however, that I found unequivocably splendid: the six pieces that formed the bulk of the first half, a set of recorder divisions, an early trio sonata, a violin sonata, a ciaconna, a cello sonata, and Corelli’s la Folia variations, were played without any breaks between pieces at all. Each cadence was elaborated into an improvised transitional fantasy leading to the next piece, as the players came and went allowing each other to shine. A wonderful effect.