red priest feature

Seen In New York – The Amazing Baroque Stylings of Red Priest

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I had never heard of Red Priest when I was invited to go see their Vivaldi performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few weeks ago. We took advantage of the Met’s “Bring the Kids” initiative (in which children ages 7-16 may see live performances for a fee of $1) so our party included three kids, and I’ll admit I was a little bit worried that three kids, even three kids who liked music, would have a rough time sitting still through a Baroque performance.

Well, fortunately for me, and fortunately for them, and fortunately for all who sat near us in the audience, this was no ordinary Baroque performance. There is nothing remotely ordinary about Red Priest. We did hear Vivaldi (as well as Casello, Cima, Oritz, Van Eyck, and Purcell), but this was The Four Seasons as we’d never experienced it before…full of wild energy, humor, birdsong, drunkenness, extravagance, flamboyance, and all manner of emotional energy. We enjoyed the show tremendously, adults and children alike.

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red priest - group portrait

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I think that perhaps we make the mistake, sometimes, of treating the past, and what we consider high art, with a bit too much seriousness and formality. When Baroque music was first created, there was certainly humor in it, and live performances (and before the advent of recorded music, of course, the only way for anyone to hear music was during live performances) included improvisation, and, no doubt, interaction between audiences and performers, and sometimes audiences who were more interested in dancing or conversation or gossip or drinking or flirting than in the musical entertainment. Often, orchestral music, as well as other traditional art, like classic plays, opera, and ballet, can seem rigid, sterile, boring, and inaccessible, and we forget that they do properly include sentimentality and jokes and earthiness and human expressiveness in all of its forms, and that they were, in their time, popular art forms.  As Red Priest pointed out in the notes on the program which I received upon arrival, “Music [four hundred years ago] was much more a product of its time and place, and outside of the formality of church services, it was largely a casual affair: people would walk in and out, drink, talk, gamble; farmers were even known to pass through with their goats!  The music often went on for hours and hours, so today’s formal concert set-up–70 minutes of music performed to a silent audience seated in rows–is entirely inauthentic.”

So while Red Priest offends some purists who don’t appreciate the irreverent attitude or the liberties taken with the music, I think they are likely doing a valuable service by giving people, young and old, an easy entrée into a form of artistic expression which is often otherwise experienced as exclusionary. (Besides which, as I mentioned, they are extremely entertaining.)

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The lineup that we saw included their bandleader, Piers Adams (“the modern day wild man of the recorder,” who did most of the talking), Angela East (cello), David Wright (harpsichord), and David Greenberg (violin). In the UK, their violinist is Adam Summerhayes (who has recently replaced original member, Julia Bishop). They were all extremely impressive technically, and very communicative and absolutely immediate in their showmanship.  They take their name from the red-haired Italian priest and Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, and have been compared in the press (if their website is to be believed) to the Rolling Stones, Jackson Pollock, the Marx Brothers, Spike Jones, and the Cirque du Soleil.

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Red Priest tours extensively and has many dates on the calendar throughout the year, mostly in the UK.  If you have a chance to see them live, I think it is definitely worth your while. Bring a friend who loves the western classical tradition, and bring a friend who knows nothing about it. This concert will be equally welcoming to them both.

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red preist dancing

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All Photos Courtesy of Red Priest

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

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Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com