Red Priest: Defying Baroque Boundaries

Red Priest Plays

Hear music from the CD "Pirates of the Baroque."

Piers Adams plays the recorder.

Piers Adams, leader of the group Red Priest, plays the great bass recorder in NPR's studio. Alice Winkler, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alice Winkler, NPR

Red Priest In Concert

Hear Red Priest in performance at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Coral Gables, Fla.

Piers Adams

Piers Adams, Red Priest's founder and recorder player, says that his ensemble is on the cutting edge of what's allowed in classical music. Red Priest hide caption

itoggle caption Red Priest

Red Priest is swashbuckling, extroverted, and scandalous — energetic adjectives for a harpsichordist, cellist, violinist, and recorder player. The British quartet has cut a wide swath through the Baroque music world, as you can tell from the titles of some of the group's programs: Priest on the Run, Nightmare in Venice, The Red Priest and the Virgin. It's not your high-school English teacher's Baroque music ensemble.

Red Priest was founded in 1997 by Piers Adams, whom the Washington Post has called "the reigning recorder virtuoso of our day." The band's name comes from Antonio Vivaldi, a famous scarlet-haired composer and violinist, who also happened to be a priest. His nickname was "Il Prete Rosso"— the Red Priest.

"We just loved that combination of words — it was very evocative to us," Adams says. The fact that Vivaldi was an extravagant performer himself and quite a maverick was an additional attraction. "We felt it suited our group rather well."

Unlike a number of typically formal early-music groups, whose primary goal is often to re-create an "authentic" Baroque performance, Red Priest approaches concerts from a decidedly different angle.

"We tend to forget that people in the olden days were having fun," Adams says. "They were like us, and they weren't all serious and earnest and wondering how they should do it. They were experimenting and doing their own thing. You can read descriptions of people in those days — the violinist Corelli, for instance, who, when he performed, was so carried away with what he was doing that you couldn't recognize him. His eyes turned bright red."

In the group's latest thematically titled recording, Pirates of the Baroque: Stolen Masterworks and Long-Lost Musical Jewels Performed with Swashbuckling Virtuosity, Red Priest not only delivers stylishly performed Baroque pieces, but also occasionally adds sound effects. In Vivaldi's sonata "Il Tempesta di Mare" (The Storm at Sea), Adams says they decided to use their instruments in unorthodox ways.

"We wanted to take Vivaldi's music, which is already pretty stormy, and make it even more stormy. For instance, in the opening we make the upward scale sound like the wind by having the string instruments play very close to the bridge, which gives you a squeaky-windy type of sound."

Red Priest is well-known for playing with alarming speed — even frenetically — but the band is also capable of producing quieter moments.

"The contrast is very important," Adams says. "It's key, really, to everything that we do in as many ways as we can."

In one of the ensemble's gentlest pieces, Giuseppe Tartini's "Senti lo Mare" (I Listen to the Sea), Adams has added a few "sea noises" by blowing into the finger-hole of his tenor recorder.

Although Adams says that classical musicians don't necessarily need to take liberties in performance to make the music conform with contemporary culture, he says they should be allowed to do so.

"I think that there's a place for every way of playing," he says. "Obviously, there's a place for people who want it to be performed exactly as it was in the past, as far as we can know. But there's got to be a place, too, for those who want to take that and move ahead with it. It is quite frowned-upon, but I think we are on the cutting edge of what's allowed in classical music. And we do find that we tend to fall between the cracks, really, in terms of where we're accepted."

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