Clapping seems to be quite the point of contention these days, along with classical music etiquette in general and the rarefied air of classical venues. The Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune and The New York Times recently featured commentaries on the need for more energy and interaction between performers and audiences. Skeptics cautioned that the potential outbursts would shatter rapt attention to the music, which only a serene concert hall setting can provide. Leave it to some musicians to make these debates seem academic. Saturday afternoon at Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, Red Priest had its audience laughing, gasping, tapping feet, and clapping between movements as well as after them, at times even threatening to clap during the music (had New England modesty not prevailed).
Red Priest is known for a (surprise) colorful stage presence that seems to invite such chaos. Dressed in bright red honoring its namesake and inspiration, Antonio Vivaldi — the “Red Priest” — members of the English period-instrument quartet would march in humorous lockstep for a fast tempo, then casually perch themselves at either side of the stage during a sleepy central movement. Recorder player Piers Adam and violinist David Greenberg poked and parried at each other with their instruments throughout the program, when they weren’t circling the stage or playing in the aisles. Adams as well as cellist Angela East and harpsichordist David Wright commented between the music, from insight into the diverse meanings of “Baroque” to some winking commentary on composer John Bull’s amorous exploits. Somehow none of these hijinks distracted the audience from the music.
Taking the stage like prizefighters rather than stage props, without so much as a bow to the crowd or a tuning note, the group revved straight into Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor (RV 522). The thrashing feel and lightning tempo of the Allegro would have made even period-instrument punk rockers such as Europe Galante and Il Giardino Armonico blush. Vivaldi’s reflective Larghetto was given special poignancy with East plucking a descending line originally scored for violins, while her mellifluous tone was a nice substitute for a second violin during the final movement.
Red Priest’s imaginative quartet arrangements of even the most well-worn Baroque repertoire yielded intriguing, at times illuminating, and always surprising effects. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major (BWV 1048) was originally scored for three contrapuntal string sections. Stripped down to four players, Red Priest highlighted the interplay between fiddling violin and piping recorder, moving from bluegrass downbeats to jazzy syncopations (with East showing an ear for Mingus as well as Bylsma). They combined Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” with four of Leclair’s “Demon Airs” from Scylla et Glaucus into a well-paced suite, evoking both the lushness and torrential fury of the opera house with much smaller forces. Corelli’s La Folia variations started with Greenberg’s sweet, “straight” reading of the old Spanish folk dance before plunging into a quote from Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (Op. 85). Arabian microtones and Theremin-like chanting from Adams’s bass recorder (with the band seated in a semi-circle a la Ravi Shankar) followed, with an improvised atonal tag bringing things to a close.
Unfortunately, Red Priest’s broad musical gestures often undermined their imaginative arrangements as well as the music’s inherent lyricism and drive. Less than midway through the program, the exaggerated rubato heard in four of Robert Johnson’s Masques wore out its welcome. Frequent use of percussive string effects and sudden dynamic juxtapositions not only seemed mannered but eliminated a sense of contrast or even shock value. Yet this was all part of the music as well as the show, and the four players always sounded sure of their interpretive choices.
Interpretive liberties aside, the group’s dicey blend, especially with Adams’s recorder, proved a greater obstacle. Recorders are known for intonation problems, but Red Priest’s dynamic extremes and Adams’s tendency to overblow for added effect highlighted the instrument’s shortcomings rather than its potential. Things came to a head after an especially pungent unison finished the otherwise clean canon of Purcell’s “Two in One Upon A Ground” from Dioclesian early on. The group tuned up for a marked improvement throughout the rest of the program.
Several unaccompanied solo movements were interspersed throughout, showing a more measured yet equally personal approach to the music. Adams simulated melody and harmony for Telemann’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor for Recorder. He entered from the back of the hall with playful, acrobatic and seamlessly executed piping for Van Eyck’s a cappella Variations on “The English Nightingale.” Wright allowed the shifting textures and downright wild phrase endings of John Bull’s Fantasia No. 12 in D minor to speak for themselves, while East provided an introspective but ultimately ponderous reading of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor. Greenberg’s relentless ornamentation — a practice disparaged even by many Baroque treatises — removed a clear sense of line or bite from the excerpts from Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata in G Minor. Then again, that might have been exactly what this performer wanted to accomplish.
The idea of performers’ bringing something to this music other than what’s embedded in the score is probably Red Priest’s boldest move, as well as what kept the audience so passionately involved. Red Priest probably won’t be associated with any “reference recordings” but they can be counted on for imaginative and honest performances. There are far worse ways to treat this music.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.