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BBC Music Magazine Feature

Special Review Feature April 2005

Red Priest: Red Hot Baroque

Magazine Intro page:

I have painful memories of playing the recorder at infant school, but in Piers Adams’ hands it is transformed into a dazzling virtuoso star. His bravura approah has the true spirit of the baroque. The original Red Priest should be dancing in his grave.


Main feature:

A dark stage. Occasional flashes of lightning, thunder rumbles. Dry ice swirls in a red glow as four silhouetted figures appear against the backlit stage. There’s a lady in a basque, someone wearing devil’s horns. The crowd strains forward. A man in black leathers emerges. And launches into…. a solo on the descant recorder.

Incongruous? Surreal? Musical nights out don’t come much wackier than Red Priest’s ‘Red Hot Baroque’, recently at the London’s Hackney Empire and soon to be featured on the South Bank Show. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been falling over themselves to coin the neatest label for the four-strong ensemble led by Piers Adams: ‘Putting the viva back in Vivaldi’; ‘The taste of bugs bunny with the heroic self-restraint of Elton John.’ ‘Antonio Vivaldi meets the Marx brothers’, ‘The Spike Joneses of the Baroque’. Some are in danger of becoming over-excited in the rush: ‘They plunged an adrenalin-filled syringe into Vivaldi’s heart’. Ouch. Enough said.


But for it’s cunning creator, recorder wizard Piers Adams, this is not just a marketing exercise in bringing Vivaldi to the fans of Def Leppard. It’s a way of performing that arises from the music itself. After all, as he points out, the word Baroque means ‘bizarre’; improvisation was expected of performers at the time, and the relationships between drama, dance and music were more fluid. ‘We have been doing theatrical performances for years, and this show just took it one stage further and added lighting, amplification, sound affects and video.’

The first half, a ‘Baroque Carnival’ includes Robert Johnson’s Witches Dance, performed by violinist Julia Bishop and cellist Angela East in semi-darkness complete with infra-red bow sticks and cackling; a wittily enacted Vivaldi fugue and a staggering performance of Corelli’s La Folia which included variations in a jazz mood, an Indian style and, most unexpectedly, a foray into Elgar’s cello concerto. In the second half there is a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, arranged for recorder (where the violin part requires double-stopping, Adams simply plays two recorders at once), violin, cello and harpsichord. Red Priest’s recording of the work was released on the Dorian label to universal delight in 2003 when even the hoariest critics had to concede defeat. The group have taken the original idea one step further by performing it before a screen of slow-moving seasonal landscapes and rolling skies. Their Autumnal peasants are drunk and disorderly, their spring birds unruly and the barking dog bends the barlines and ends up asleep on stage with his legs in the air. When it comes to the hunt, Adams is pursued by his two string players and ends up fatally wounded by their bows. It’s half-way between a Mark Morris choreography and a pantomime of Robin Hood, with a dash of Monty Python silliness thrown in for good measure.


Adams is keen to remain unpredictable, and original. ‘There were many wild, crazy musicians at that time. The treatise writers, like Quantz, wouldn’t have felt the need to reprimand players if they hadn’t been breaking the rules! I think there’s a tendency to look at history as if through a telescope the wrong way up; we see one small picture with the differences erased, instead of the bigger picture with all its messy variety. 


‘Accounts of the time suggest that music was not only played in private houses and as part of elaborate aristocratic entertainments, but there were also less formal public evenings during which there might be a movement from this piece, and another from that well into the small hours. When we were in Venice the other day at the Vivaldi museum, the curator told us about a troupe of male musicians who visited a nunnery to play some Vivaldi pieces, and finished the performance by exposing themselves! That was the reality: some of it refined, some very earthy.’

One of his ‘wild, crazy’ inspirations is Corelli, composer and violin virtuoso, of whom Raguenet wrote in 1702, ‘I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much whilst he was playing the violin… his eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; the countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in agony…’ Another is the famous flautist Quantz who described the Italian manner of performance in 1752 as: ‘arbitrary, extravagant, artificial, obscure, frequently bold and bizarre, and difficult in execution; it permits many additions of graces, and requires a seemly knowledge of harmony.’


But Adams is keen to point out that he is not interested in recreating an ‘authentic’ seventeenth century spectacle. It is the spirit of the music he is seeking: ‘I do have a problem with pretending to be musicians of a former era. There is something so false about absolute ‘authenticity’ because it attempts to ignore the two hundred-odd years of music history in between. I want our audiences to experience our own, contemporary take on this period.’


He feels that some years ago baroque performance became quite rigidly formalised in Britain: ‘I was getting bored of playing Baroque pieces, so I stopped for a while, until I heard the Italian group Il Giardino Armonico – their sound was percussive, vibrant, no holds barred – and I went back to it with renewed energy. I’d dreamed for years of a sound like that, and a way of letting your hair down with the music.’

The result was the four-strong Red Priest, with several recordings now under their belts and a busy diary. He puts down their particular success in the United States to the more open attitude to Baroque performance there: ‘I do think there is a standardised approach now in Europe, whereas in America there is less period performance, and more of a feeling of ‘anything goes’.


The use of amplification is perhaps the most controversial aspect of his current show, but, as he explains, it is not simply there to pump up the volume. ‘When you are touring a show like this, you are nearly always going into theatres of halls with very poor acoustics, which is the kiss of death for instruments like ours. So the sound engineers sampled the acoustics of the Wigmore Hall, put it through a computer and tried to recreate that in the Hackney Empire. I’m not saying it doesn’t all need refining, but the technology exists now and I’m keen to use it for musical reasons.’


You can catch Red Hot Baroque at the Exeter Festival and the Wyastone Festival this summer and, if plans are realised, at many other venues. And if the prospect of dry ice and black leather doesn’t tempt, go for the star turn of the show: a puckish Adams appears up in the dress circle, legs dangling nonchalantly over a box and plays a set of Variations by Jacob Van Eyck: it’s the aural equivalent of an acrobat on the high-wire, delivered with such panache, precision and easy grace it took my breath clean away. Now that’s what I call spectacular.

Helen Wallace

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