Their baroque isn't boring

Concert: The British quartet Red Priest will bring its theatrical, high-octane take on chamber music to Columbia's Smith Theatre Saturday.

January 30, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dollars to doughnuts, the wise guy who dismissed baroque music as "Muzak for the intelligentsia" never heard of Red Priest.

He probably would have known that "Red Priest" was the nickname for red-headed Antonio Vivaldi, who was indeed ordained but found more fame as a composer in 18th-century Venice than he ever could have as a churchman.

But Red Priest is also a quartet of English baroque specialists that has become famous for swashbuckling, highly theatrical performances of works composed by its namesake and others.

Red Priest's feisty, high-energy style of baroque - surely the antithesis of elevator music - will be on display Saturday night at Smith Theatre when the group appears under the auspices of Columbia's Candlelight Concerts.

Violinist Julia Bishop, cellist Angela East, harpsichordist Howard Beach and recorder superstar Piers Adams formed the ensemble in 1997, and now give more than 50 concerts a year - some at the most prestigious music festivals in Europe and the United States. And though the group is known for its over-the-top performance style and recordings such as the baroque-horror epic Nightmare in Venice, which features such phantasmagorial fare as Vivaldi's "Nightmare" Concerto, Giuseppe Tartini's "Devil's Trill" and Jean-Marie Leclair's "Demon Airs," each player comes with impeccable credentials in the period performance genre.

Adams, one of the world's foremost virtuosos of the recorder, has performed at London's Royal Festival and Wigmore Halls, and his debut compact disc of Vivaldi's music for recorder has won critical acclaim. So compelling are his gifts that contemporary composers such as David Bedford have written concertos expressly for him.

Bishop, who records for the Deutsche Grammophon and Dorian labels, maintains a career full of engagements as a violin soloist with period-style orchestras such as Florilegium, the Brandenburg Consort and the Hanover Band.

Among cellist East's concert credits are performances at the Palace of Versailles and Milan's La Scala. And harpsichordist Beach, who was once the piano accompanist for baritone Bryn Terfel, is a frequent soloist and continuo player with such prime outfits as William Christie's Les Arts Florissants, the Apollo Chamber Orchestra and the London Mozart Players.

Subtitled "A Baroque Fantasy," Saturday's concert will include works from Vivaldi, Bach, Leclair, Tartini, Jacob van Eyck, Maurizio Cazzati and Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Like all Red Priest affairs, it promises to be a high-quality, marvelously hyperactive endeavor with nary a note of elevator music.

They may mix in show biz with their Schutz, but as English musicologist George Pratt says, "If nobody goes over the top, how will we know what lies on the other side?"

Candlelight Concerts Chamber Music Series will present "A Baroque Fantasy" by Red Priest early music ensemble at 8 p.m. Saturday at Smith Theatre, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. There will be an opportunity to meet the artists at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: 410-480-9950, 410-715-0034 or 301-596-6203.

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