April 25, 2004
Red Priest upstages the nice young ladies

Last night I watched a lot of classical musical TV, all of it on BBC4 TV, in the form of two shows that I had marked in the Radio Times to watch, and one that I just stumbled upon, of which the one I stumbled upon was the most interesting.

The first show I had already decided to watch was Chiao-Ying Chang playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 at the Leeds Piano Competition of 2003. But I tuned into BBC4 a bit before that, and so it was that I stumbled upon a group called Red Priest playing Vivaldi.

Red Priest consist of just four musicians. The boss is a guy called Piers Adams, who has something of the look of Neal Hannon of Divine Comedy. He plays - and I know this doesn't suit with bossing anything, but there it is, this is what he plays – the recorder. There's a violin lady who looks somewhat like Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. (That's how she does her hair anyway.) There was a somewhat older cello lady with short hair and somewhat older, but good at the cello. And there was a somewhat geeky guy who played mostly harpsichord, but who also did some some support violin playing. But although this guy didn't look so exciting, he sure behaved strangely when he was doing a barking dog with his violin.

RedPriestVivaldi.jpgThey were playing one of the Vivaldi Four Seasons concertos, in a programme of "Early Music". They played it with lots of special effects, which is fair enough, because the original is full of special effects – although you wouldn't know it from the average Brand-X performance of these pieces on CD.

Early Music usually means Classical Music so Classical that you iust know that although maybe you like it, no one else does in any numbers, and that as far as the ongoing history of music, this is a backwater, going nowhere. And the rest of this Early Music programme consisted of exactly this kind of thing. Oxbridge graduates in a line singing motets, or whatever they were, in a manner which shrieked of Arts Council grants. Solemn and safe gatherings of viol players, violing away in a manner that you've heard a hundred times, in the unlikely event that you care for such stuff.

But Red Priest are entirely different. They weren't doing yet another "historically authentic" exercise in museum curatorship. They were doing a cover version. Seriously, that was the phrase that Piers Adams used when he was interviewed. He was using Vivaldi's music as the basis for a hyper-theatrical hyper-exciting entertainment, with lots of Hammer Horror costumes and Hammer Horror harpsichord playing, and general leaping about and ripping into the music, in a manner more like that manic pseudo-folk-singer who used to play the flute in among singing on Top of the Pops about a thousand years ago, than like your usual Early Musicians. (Commenters please offer some names, so I can say, yes that's it.) It was great.

And the irony is that I reckon is was probably far more authentic than your average authentic performance, because Vivaldi was nothing if not an entertainer. But if that's wrong, who cares? Entertainment and genuinely musical music is what matters, not mere accuracy of recreation.

Then I heard Chiao-Ying Chang do (as it turned out) her (for she was a she) Beethoven. And then later I listened to the final of the Young Musician of the Year 2002 tournament, basically to hear Jennifer Pike play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The Beethoven was okay, and the Mendelssohn was better than okay. But is the music profession going to make a serious living rehashing these same old concertos in the same old style? And if if a tiny few such people can make a living, what will it prove artistically?

Which is where Red Priest come in. There was an air of busking-in-the-tube desperation to entertain about their act which lifted it a level above the usual dreary, heard-it-all-before classical event. I know it must sound strange to say this, but I really feel that they have a tighter grip on what the problem is with classical music nowadays and what it makes sense to do about it, than does either of these two tremendously nice young ladies with their Beethoven and their Mendelssohn. Pike, as I say, is exceptionally good at the violin. But, unless she is given new stuff to play besides the stuff that she now plays - and I include in that condemnation the dreary stuff (if the same I heard at the semi-final was anything to go by) written by her doting father, who is a Professor of Composition and who looks like it – her life will be downhill from now on. She may have a fine old time playing the same old stuff, but fewer and fewer other people will care, once the novelty of her being that good when aged twelve has worn off.

But Red Priest? Vivaldi?!?!?!

Yes. I believe that part of the "future of Classical Music" is to be found in this huge mismatch between the huge number of and extraordinary technical excellence of the latest generation of classical musicians, and the lack of demand for the number of symphony orchestras that the world would have to contain to employ them all, what with being able to listen to recordings of all the classics. They should be playing Red Priest videos in all the music schools, because the atmosphere they give off is what Successful Future of Classical Music events are going to be like.

And not a drum kit to be seen.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
Category: Classical music