Sunday, November 5, 2017

Red Priest weaves its early-music spell with 21st-century charm at the Tarkington in Carmel

Red Priest is not your great-great-great-grandfather's early music group.
Enough mystery surrounds the life and career of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) that his nickname, the Red Priest, is a natural fit for an unconventional ensemble specializing on music of his era and before.

So Red Priest, a British quartet that became known to Indianapolis in the last decade through several appearances under the auspices of the Festival Music Society, returned Saturday night in a more mainstream milieu, the Classical Series of concerts presented this season by the Center for the Performing Arts.

"Gypsy Fever," as the group's presentation in the Tarkington was titled, emphasized the allure of Gypsy music for the high and low art of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Red Priest does not shy away from doubling down on the cross-pollination. The last two pieces on the program, as the quartet interpreted two composers at the summit of its repertoire — Handel and Vivaldi — freely luxuriated in a harmonious blend of Gypsy and High Baroque styles.

Retitled "Concerto for the Imaginary Gypsies," Red Priest's adaptation of Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in A minor, RV 356 was a fitting choice for such a climactic exhibition of the blurred line, in terms of energy and figuration, between the High Baroque and the more demotic musical idiom of the Gypsies. They became an influential yet marginalized people who first introduced themselves to European culture in 14th-century Hungary. The finale of the original lent itself particularly well to transformation as a vehicle for Piers Adams, the recorder player,  and Adam Summerhayes, the violinist, to mount Gypsy-oriented fantasies upon the original.

Vivaldi's life involved some wandering toward the end, but his service to a school for orphan girls in Venice produced the bulk of the repertoire by which he's known today. Handel had wanderlust in his younger years, and gained a lot in Rome absorbing Italian aesthetics and opera technique, before he moved to England and built an adoring public. His aria, "Lascia ch'io piange," formed the basis for Red Priest's next-to-last number. The group imported the Gypsy-linked Hungarian czardas into the aria's melody; Handel himself used the tune in several different places in his output. For Red Priest, the result became "Lascia chi'o Czardas." The adaptability of Baroque composers clearly is part of Red Priest's brand, and it's no more to be scorned than its eccentric, individualized garb — bright colors, bold patterns, and the sheen of leather.

G.P. Telemann ventured east to Poland to acquaint himself with what to a North German would have seemed the essence of exoticism. Red Priest's concert opened with his  Gypsy Sonata in A minor, a vivid enough piece, full of Gypsy flourishes. That seemed tame in retrospect once the quartet launched into a Heinrich Biber sonata, full of bird calls and a high level of fluttering and flamboyance. Telemann, more cosmopolitan than his contemporary J.S. Bach, was further represented, to end the first half, with two movements of a Concerto in E minor. The Presto was to every extent a "Gypsy whirligig," as a Red Priest member described it from the stage. It featured the utmost in high-speed virtuosity from both Adams and Summerhayes.

Most of the music was memorized, a considerable achievement given the note-spinning the recorder player and the violinist are assigned. Cellist Angela East shouldered a lot of the burden as well. She executed highly decorated recitative passages with the same aplomb she brought to her basso continuo responsibilities.

Harpsichordist David Wright worked from the scores so as to anchor the ensemble harmonically and rhythmically. Red Priest arrangements tend not to permit any of the ensemble members much of a chance to settle down with one type of playing or a limited function within the ensemble. Adams made use of virtually the whole family of recorders, and Summerhayes played guitar and several other instruments, too.

Especially charming in this program as a relief from the most intense music were several short pieces from Uhrovska, a town in Slovakia where Red Priest discovered some dance tunes from about 1730.  These had a salt-of-the-earth simplicity of idiom. The music was obviously designed to be catchy and get villagers on their feet or singing along. 

Typically, Red Priest's arrangements stick close to the spirit of such original material while playing freely with it so as to put an idiosyncratic stamp upon it. The upshot was exhilarating from first to last.