A zany spin on musical piracy
Red Priest camps it up with mixed results
ROCKPORT - The British Baroque music band called Red Priest recently passed through town for two programs at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. I caught only the second one, but if it was indicative of both, it’s a shame that this group represented Rockport’s entire early music slate for the summer season.
I’m all for clever satire and concerts with a creative theatrical gloss, but this one had neither, though it certainly tried. The program was titled “Bach and the Pirates,’’ a play on the notion that Baroque composers often borrowed from each other’s works or cribbed from their own pieces to create new ones. Red Priest ran with the piracy pun and dressed up in red-and-black pirate outfits, complete with sashes, a feather hat, and periodic shouts of “Aaaaaargh!’’
Even as a musical conceit, the piracy theme wore rather thin. The program was made up of their own arrangements of works by Bach, Tartini, Telemann, and others, presented with what I think was meant to be daring irreverence. Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord was “hijacked’’; in Tartini’s Sonata “Senti Lo Mare,’’ Piers Adams blew into the finger-holes of his recorder to produce faux ocean noises while violinist David Greenberg and cellist Angela East imitated the sounds of distant screeching seagulls. Before launching into Vivaldi’s concerto “La Tempesta di Mare,’’ Adams issued a disclaimer: “This is not exactly as Vivaldi intended his work to be performed, but on the other hand, he is dead!’’ What followed was Vivaldi taken at a breakneck tempo, with the two string players struggling to keep up and adding a muddiness to the virtuosity. In the middle of the last movement, all the players yelled “Ship Ahoy!’’
Red Priest here presented itself as a kind of merry band of classical music outlaws, breaking all the rules, you know, by daring to have fun in a serious business, by tinkering with the music that’s supposed to be regarded as sacred, by jumping around on stage instead of practicing zombie-like decorum, and by telling earthy stories about those composers we all think of as unimpeachable gods, right? It’s an approach that carries its own built-in defenses. If you felt the antics detracted from the show then you must hail from that other stodgy camp, preferring only stone-faced performers who wouldn’t dare bring a sense of fun to the sleepy music of the past. As if these were really the only two choices.
At intermission, my mind drifted back to the most entertaining Baroque performance I attended this year, which was given by a group called Solamente Naturali at the Boston Early Music Festival. The conception was smart - looking across Europe at the early Baroque violin’s not-so-secret life as a dance instrument - and the performances were full of imagination and a rugged folk-infused virtuosity. The players were having a ball. They clearly had faith that their musical aims could be realized through their own powers as interpreters; no gimmicks required.
I was clearly in the minority on Monday night as the Rockport audience showered the group with an enthusiastic ovation. But did the band win them over with the shtick or other factors? Between the “Aaaaarghs’’ the musicians of Red Priest played with a lot of energy, and Adams is a deft recorder player. Helping with their freewheeling image was also the fact that all but one performer played entirely from memory, which is rare in chamber music.
What’s more, throughout the night, the players engaged with the audience directly by introducing each work from the stage. There is clearly a deep hunger out there among concert-goers for that kind of direct audience engagement, and for events that frame musicians not as dutiful servants of the ancient scores but as playful creative artists chasing their own passions.
For me, there were just two moments of Monday’s show that seemed to reflect that last aspect with real sincerity. The first was when Greenberg, the violinist, laid into some Cape Breton fiddle tunes, performing them with a naturalness, an openness, and a stylistic comfort unlike anything else he played on the program.
The second was when East, the cellist, performed some beautifully melancholy selections by Couperin, with David Wright providing a simple harpsichord accompaniment. Here too the antics momentarily melted away, and an air of genuine musicianship floated over the hall. You could sense the crowd’s attention instantly deepening. Even the other performers looked as if their thoughts had been briefly transported elsewhere. I felt sorry for East afterward, when she had to slip back into the role of the jolly pirate. She was more convincing as herself.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.