If any Baroque-music purists survived the Houston debut of Red Priest, Tuesday’s concert at Midtown’s Trinity Episcopal Church would have been their personal Nightmare on Main Street.
Actually, the four-member, Britain-based ensemble called the evening Nightmare in Venice and, in the spirit of Halloween, featured music composed in Stylus Phantasticus, a 17th-century style noted for its free-form, fantastical moods and unexpected musical effects
Red Priest recorders, violin, Baroque cello and harpsichord opened with a concerto by the original red priest, Italy’s Antonio Vivaldi. ForLa Notte (The Night), the players entered in black hoods and robes, one musician from the side of the church’s chancel and the rest from the church’s rear. They played the horror film-like special effects with ghoulish glee and fabulous virtuosity.
So much so that I kept thinking Virgil Fox — the mid-20th-century American organist know for over-the-top flash, outrageous arrangements and blinding technical skill — lives. (In 1970, when the flower-power era was in full swing, he began a tour of his program Heavy Organ with a giant-sized light show at the Fillmore East in New York.)
Headed by recorder player Piers Adams, the group offered works with suggestive titles (such as Giuseppe Tartini’sThe Devils Trill sonata), sets of variations over a repeating bass melody, and loads of arrangements (such asDance of the Blessed Spirits) from Christophe Willibald von Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice).
The technical skill was undeniable.
Watching Adam’s fingers fly almost like a hummingbird’s wings over his high soprano recorder was shocking when matched with the peerless clarity and musicality. Violinist David Greenberg, cellist Angela East and harpsichordist Howard Beach were similarly impressive, especially when they discarded antics and concentrated on pure music-making. East’s version of the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 5 for unaccompanied cello was profoundly moving.
At times, though, it was hard not to think that the group was playing faster than needed just to impress.
And, antics there were. Most works qualified as arrangements with assorted special effects and additions thrown in to reinforce the evening’s theme. No choreographer was credited, but the quartet indulged occasional movement with an outward Michael Jackson thrust of an arm or a Beyoncé -like strut. When carried away, Greenberg let slip his expertise in Cape Breton fiddling, a folk style from an island in Canada’s Nova Scotia province.
Red Priest’s concert style has been so alluring that its garnered comparisons to the Rolling Stones, Jackson Pollock, the Marx Brothers, Spike Jones and the Cirque du Soleil.
Let’s just say that, on Tuesday, they offered a mad dash of technical wizardry and enough impressive music-making to make many people think they were wizards of classical music entertainment.