In the past several years of its 27-season history, the Friends of Music at Queens have adventurously broadened their definition of chamber music, including among the presentations of string quartets and piano trios boundary-pushing ensembles like that of bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons or the Western Jazz Quartet. This concert by Red Priest at Queens University was another such chamber music adventure.
Red Priest's performance lies outside the borders of "traditional" chamber music concerts for a number of reasons. First, the ensemble's repertoire is Baroque – not the domain of the typical chamber ensemble – and almost all of the music performed has been arranged for their quartet (recorders, violin, cello, and harpsichord). Second, the staging is often theatrical, with musicians moving freely about the stage and even the concert hall to engage the audience. And third, like performances by the Canadian Brass or PDQ Bach, a Red Priest concert injects a strong dose of humor into the music.
Led by the extraordinary recorder player, Piers Adams, Red Priest was founded in 1997 and named for Antonio Vivaldi, nicknamed the "Red Priest" because of his bright red hair. Adams, cellist Angela East, and harpsichordist David Wright all come from Britain. Violinist David Greenberg grew up in Maryland and now lives in Canada.
An annoyingly late start time (8:15, after a rather long set of announcements) fortunately did not prejudice the good-sized and eager audience against the musicians, who rushed on to the stage in black and red attire (Adams in black leather slacks and a scarlet silk jacket with sequin décor, for example) and burst into the lively "Tambourin" by Frenchman Jean-Marie LeClair (1697-1764). Except for the harpsichordist, the musicians performed the entire program from memory, and the independence from the score allowed them to interact freely with each other and with the audience. Red Priest has been compared to the Rolling Stones, and at times Adams and violinist Greenberg leaned into each other and jammed like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
As Adams explained, the first half of the program was a sort of European tour. The French "Tambourin" was followed by Telemann's "Gypsy" Sonata in A minor (which stuck pins in two areas of the map – Germany and Hungary). All four musicians performed with virtuosity, grace, and a fair amount of cheek, taking great liberties with tempo and phrasing and engaging in frequent one-upmanship that evoked chuckles from the audience. In the sonata's final Allegro the cellist and violinist matched wits in a game of "anything you can play, I can play higher," pushing both instruments to the very limits of pitch.
After that tour de force, the recorder was put to rest, and the other three musicians settled down to perform a medley of love songs: the beautiful and melancholy Scottish air, "My Bonnie Laddie Has My Heart," featuring the violin as Celtic fiddle; the lovely "Amoroso" slow movement from a cello sonata by the Italian cellist and composer Salvatore Lanzetti (1710-1780); and a set of variations on "John Come Kiss" by the German/British composer Thomas Baltzar (1630-1663) that took Greenberg from passionate Baroque to foot-stomping bluegrass.
Adams returned to the stage via the side door of the auditorium, parading past the audience as he performed on high soprano recorder a solo set of dazzling variations on "What Shall We Do This Evening" by the Dutch composer Jacob Van Eyck (1589-1657). The listeners laughed in amazement at his facility, as cascades of notes and trills poured from his instrument. Two short works by Handel, including a somewhat noisy and messy harpsichord arrangement of the aria "Vo' Far Guerra," from the opera Rinaldo, were followed by a clever and exciting presentation of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, in which Adams played three different recorders.
The second half of the program was dedicated to the Red Priest, himself, in an inventive performance of Vivaldi's beloved Four Seasons. The musicians hammed up the "Spring" and "Autumn" concertos, exaggerating the bird calls and barking dog in the former and embodying the drunken peasants, horseback-riding hunters, and mortally wounded stag in the latter. The "Summer" and "Winter" concertos were performed with less slapstick but great musical imagination – especially the Largo movement of the "Winter" concerto, in which the cello and tenor recorder played chilly percussive raindrops while Greenberg improvised on the original solo violin tune.
Like the world of chamber music, the Early Music world is full of traditionalists, and Red Priest has been criticized by some staunch standard bearers for their libertarian approach. Certainly, the comic routines do change the nature of the listening experience: when the musicians are stumbling across the stage and sloshing into each phrase, Vivaldi's score becomes background music to their shenanigans. But, as with the Friends of Music at Queens' bold programming, Red Priest's innovation with a pinch of impudence is pulling new audiences into the concert hall.