incident light

Red Priest

An authentically freewheeling blast

March 6, 2012

A product of culture is never just an artifact, a thing. It is also a repository of the ideas, beliefs, practices, aspirations, limitations -- the list goes on -- of its historical context. Too, the way a cultural product is experienced is one of its essential qualities, and experience is unavoidably fluid, like the river you can’t step into twice.

Over the past few decades, musicians aligned with the “historically informed performance” movement have come reasonably close to reproducing the style and sonic character of music from the baroque period -- the artifacts as they sounded at birth, to the extent that research has been able to illuminate.  

In a superbly played and deliciously entertaining concert, March 4 in Temple Beth-El, the baroque quartet Red Priest went a step further, giving the audience a sense of how the original listeners might have experienced the music as an expression of contemporary (to them) culture. The local presenter was the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.

Musical practice in 17th and 18th-century Europe was closer to jazz in some respects than to the classical music industry of the present. Intellectual property protections were virtually nil, so composers often appropriated themes from each other. Composers did not always specify the instrumentation for pieces, and even when they did so it was common for performances to be put together with whatever instruments happened to be available in any particular place. Musicians were expected to improvise. A particularly impressive improvised solo might be written down by another musician who happened to hear it, just as today great jazz solos are transcribed from recordings and made available in musical notation for other musicians to play.

Most important, when this music was new it was ... well, new. And that is how these performances sounded.

Most of the program consisted of Red Priest’s own arrangements for its contingent of recorders (Piers Adams), violin (David Greenberg), cello (Angela East) and harpsichord (David Wright, playing a French-style instrument built by Gerald Self of San Antonio).

Individually and as a group, they all proved to be amazingly gifted musicians.

Mr. Wright attained the zenith of virtuosity in William Babell’s contemporaneous transcription of Handel’s improvisation on an aria from “Rinaldo,” with over-the-top showy roller-coaster runs. Mr. Adams, playing recorders ranging from bass to sopranino, demonstrated astonishing dexterity and clarity in everything he played, including an assortment of hornpipes strung together as a natural segue from an allegro movement of  Bach’s Violin Sonata in G, BWV 1019. Mr. Greenberg and Ms. East played with the kind of rhythmic verve and snap that would be approved equally by baroque specialists, bluegrass string players and (in GP Telemann’s “Gypsy” Sonata in A Minor, equipped with insinuating slides) the strolling musicians at a Hungarian restaurant.

Much of Red Priest’s authenticity is in its refusal to make a fetish of authenticity.

J.S. Bach probably would not have expected to hear his C Minor Prelude and Fugue from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” in an arrangement for four players, but audiences of Bach’s time would not have been surprised to hear almost anything played by almost any kind of ensemble --and credited to a different composer, to boot.

A quartet arrangement of Giuseppe Tartini’s “Senti lo mare,” originally for solo violin, was embellished with the sounds of surf (Mr. Adams blowing into a finger hole of his recorder) and sea birds (Mr. Greenberg and Ms. East playing in their high registers). Musicians of Tartini’s time probably wouldn’t have done that, but this piece, like much of baroque music, was intended to evoke extra-musical real-world sounds, so the added atmospherics suited the spirit of the piece.  

 An 18th-century performance of Vivaldi’s “Sea Storm” Concerto, whether or not in its original instrumentation, probably would not include an interpolated hornpipe, but it might well include some material that Vivaldi didn’t compose. Similarly, an 18th century audience might applaud the enterprise of an ensemble that inserted its own Middle Eastern and Spanish-style variations in Arcangelo Corelli's Concert Fantasy on "La Filia." A jazz variation?  Why not?

Perhaps the musicians ought to have stopped short of calling “Ship ahoy!” in the midst of Vivaldi’s concerto. Then again....

Mike Greenberg