Red Priest: Defying Baroque Boundaries The British band Red Priest, led by nimble-fingered recorder player Piers Adams, plays Baroque music with virtuosity and attitude. The adventurous group challenges perceived notions of how standard works by Vivaldi and others should be performed.
NPR logo

Red Priest: Defying Baroque Boundaries

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Red Priest: Defying Baroque Boundaries

Red Priest: Defying Baroque Boundaries

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Red Priest is swashbuckling, extroverted, scandalous - energetic adjectives for a harpsichord, cello, violin and recorder. The quartet has cut a wide swath through the Baroque music world, as you can tell from the titles of some of their 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 quartet.

The group was founded in 1997 by Piers Adams, who the Washington Post has called the reigning recorder virtuoso of our day. And Piers Adams has leapt the barricades into our studio all the way, I believe, from Idaho. It's your last port of call, right?

Mr. PIERS ADAMS (Recorder Player and Founder, Red Priest): It certainly was.

LYDEN: But home is England.

Mr. ADAMS: It is.

LYDEN: Well, welcome. Welcome to the show.

Mr. ADAMS: Thanks very much.

LYDEN: We're delighted to have you here. You formed the group Red Priest, you are the founder. Where does the name come from?

Mr. ADAMS: The name relates to the composer Antonio Vivaldi, who was obviously a very famous composer in his day. He was a priest as well as being a composer and a violinist, and he had red hair. They called him Il Prete Rosso, the Red Priest. And we just loved that combination of words, it was very evocative to us, coupled with the fact that Vivaldi was a very extravagant performer himself, quite a maverick, and we felt it suited our group rather well.

LYDEN: Now, I went to some Baroque music performances years ago as a student in Cambridge, England. And I confess that at the time, I felt very grown up but sort of as if I was reprising an E.M. Forster "Howard's End" sort of moment in that I was going to bat my eyelashes at a university student. It seemed a bit formal, staid, but I gather that you have an entirely different interpretation

Mr. ADAMS: Well, Baroque can be many different things. You know, of course, there are those who want to play it in a very serious way, and there is some very serious music from that period. But, you know, we tend to forget that people in the olden days were having fun. They were like us, and they weren't all serious and earnest and wondering how they should do it. They were experimenting, doing their own thing. And you read descriptions of people from those days — a description, for instance, of the violinist Corelli who, when he performed, was so carried away with what he was doing that you couldn't recognize him. His eyes turned bright red. You know, it's suggestive of, you know, more like the Rolling Stones than maybe the experience you had in Cambridge.

LYDEN: So let's hear something from your latest CD called "Pirates of the Baroque: Stolen Masterworks and Long-Lost Musical Jewels Performed with Swashbuckling Virtuosity." Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Pirates of the Baroque")

LYDEN: What are we listening to?

Mr. ADAMS: This is the second movement from a sonata called "La Burrasca," which is a sea storm, by a very little known composer called Giovanni Paolo Simonetti. In fact, I have to confess at this moment, he's so little known he couldn't actually exist.

LYDEN: You made him up?

Mr. ADAMS: We didn't make him up, actually, although we did make up some of the stuff on this album. But we had this idea of musical piracy in its many forms, both in terms of people feeling other people's themes, just as the art of rearrangement is a mild form of piracy, but also the idea of people using other composers' names, and there are a couple of instances on this album. And this one actually was a piece - is a piece of fake Baroque music, but it's a really rather good one.

(Soundbite of song, "La Burrasca")

LYDEN: Now you actually met the man who calls himself Giovanni Paolo Simonetti. How did that happen?

Mr. ADAMS: Well, I was in a bar in Germany with someone who knew him knew that - the guy who actually wrote this music. He's a German musician, a composer, called Winfried Michel. And I wasn't really aware of the whole Simonetti story at the time. I was vaguely aware of this piece of music. He said, oh, that guy over there, he's Simonetti.

LYDEN: And you thought maybe he was 300 years old?

Mr. ADAMS: Yeah, maybe. I don't know. He was about 40 at the time, I think.

LYDEN: Well, getting back to your recorder, Mr. Recorder Player, could you give us a demonstration? You've got - I wish people could see - quite an assemblage of recorders there, ranging from things about 10 inches long to something that almost looks almost like the alto saxophone made out of wood, however.

Mr. ADAMS: Yeah I know, that's right. Well, this is a - well, the first thing about the recorder is it does come in lots of shape and sizes. So if you're a recorder player, you just don't play one, you have to play the whole range. And that's part of the interest and excitement of it. What we have here ranges from the bottom of one of the largest instruments and so your lower notes here…

(Soundbite of Recorder)

Mr. ADAMS: It's nice and mellow. It's nice, rich, bass-y tones up to the top of the tiny instruments.

(Soundbite of Recorder)

LYDEN: Wonderful. And then you've got everything in between.

Mr. ADAMS: Everything in between, and the most common size is the alto recorder.

LYDEN: I understand that you often play two at once in concert.

Mr. ADAMS: Yeah, I can play two recorders at once. We - this is sort of partly just for showmanship, I guess one would say. But, you know, when we're arranging music for our group, we're often arranging orchestral music, which has a lot of parts in it and there are only four of us in the group, so we have to be very creative in finding ways to get all the lines of music to work. So occasionally, I might do something like this.

(Soundbite of Recorder)

LYDEN: Mm. I've never seen two recorders played together. Two tin whistles sometimes in Irish music, but did you appropriate it from Irish music?

Mr. ADAMS: No.

LYDEN: Did you steal it?

Mr. ADAMS: I've - maybe. Actually, no. If you go back to ancient cave drawings of, you know, Etruscan art, you actually see people playing double pipes, two pipes at once. It's something that, you know, goes back an awfully long way. I don't know of any written instances in Baroque music, but certainly in modern recorder music it's a fairly conventional technique now.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: I just want to ask you, we have really been, you know, sort of frenetic here in this conversation. Do you ever give the audience a break and play something a little slower?

Mr. ADAMS: Oh sure we do, yes, and I think it's very important. The contrast is key, really, to everything that we do in as many ways as we can. For instance, one of our favorite concert pieces at the moment is called "Senti lo Mare," "Listen to the Sea," again on the nautical theme. And this is the first movement of a little sonata, a little known sonata, by Giuseppe Tartini. And we made an arrangement of this to include a few sea noises.

(Soundbite of "Senti lo Mare")

LYDEN: That is absolutely lovely.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you.

LYDEN: Just lovely.

Mr. ADAMS: It is a wonderful tune, actually. We found it very inspiring that the beauty and the simplicity of that tune and then the thought of the sea coming in and out, which…

LYDEN: You said you had the sea, we hear that at the beginning of the piece. Is that musical orchestration or something else that you've used for that effect?

Mr. ADAMS: No, I was…

LYDEN: Kind of sounds like people breathing.

Mr. ADAMS: Yeah, I was blowing into the finger hole if the tenor recorder.

LYDEN: That's - wow.

Mr. ADAMS: I mean, that's the closest we could get.

LYDEN: Yeah.

Mr. ADAMS: Again, we're just trying to use whatever facilities we have at hand to produce the effect that we want, and that was the best we could come up with.

LYDEN: It's haunting. It's haunting.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you.

LYDEN: Well, we hope that you'll be back in the United States soon. I know you're concluding your tour here this time out, but thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. ADAMS: Oh, it's a pleasure.

LYDEN: It's been magical speaking with you.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you.

LYDEN: Piers, would you just take us out on something here in the studio before you leave?

Mr. ADAMS: Sure, yes, maybe a little bit more on the bass recorder to demonstrate the mellow tones of that instrument. This is the opening of a sonata by Handel.

(Soundbite of Sonata)

LYDEN: That's Piers Adams of Red Priest. You can find their new CD on their Web site, And to see them in concert, check out our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.