Thursday, April 24, 2014

Talking to Piers Adams, recorder player and member of the Red Priest Baroque Ensemble

On March 1st 2014 British recorder player Piers Adams and I met in the lounge of the Dan Eilat
Hotel, where the “Red Priest” Baroque Ensemble had given two performances at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Members of the ensemble are Julia Bishop-violin, Angela East-‘cello, David Wright-harpsichord and Piers Adams-recorder.

PH: Piers Adams, where did you grow up?

Piers Adams: I was brought up in the Home Counties of England and I now live in the historic town of Lewes in Sussex.

PH: When did you start playing the recorder?

PA: Not that early – when I was about ten in school classroom lessons. Then I had a music teacher at my secondary school who was a big admirer of David Munrow and had all his recordings. Just after David Munrow died, the teacher started an early music group at the school. We had a chest of crumhorns and some wonderful old instruments. He picked me out and suggested I join the group. He was very inspirational, actually, and it is because of him that I am where I am now.

PH: Did you study music at university?

PA: No. I studied physics at university and only then went on the Guildhall School of Music to do a year of post-graduate early music. Then I had private recorder lessons in Italy with Kees Boeke. (He had been one of Frans Brüggen’s students). Not an extensive training; the rest I learned “on the job”. I think my main training was listening to Frans Brüggen recordings in my teens; that is how I got the sound and the feel of the recorder.

PH: In “Venetian Carnival” and “Handel in the Wind” you were playing a huge range of recorders.

PA: I play a lot of recorders. Some of them, the keyed instruments, are modern recorders with a larger sound. This is very important as we play in bigger concert halls than in Baroque times. Some of these were made by Dutch recorder-builder Adriana Breukink. She has developed an instrument which is a kind of hybrid. It has the bore of a Renaissance instrument. Renaissance recorders had a bigger sound than Baroque recorders, when dimensions got smaller and became more refined. So she has taken the model of the Renaissance recorder and added to it and maximized it; she has done some clever tricks with it. She calls it the “Eagle” recorder. They take a lot of work to control them, but they are rewarding and sound very good.

PH: Well, the “Red Priest” performances of Baroque music we heard at the festival are not what you would call mainstream.

PA: I guess not. We have actually got quite used to it now, but it seems that not everybody else has.

PH: Does your approach come under fire from the more conservative listener?

PA: Occasionally. People are entitled to their own opinion and even not to like our performance, but most people realize that what they are coming to hear is not going to be mainstream. We are quite happy with the 95% of positive reviews. There have been people who miss the point of what we are doing and see us as not serious, that we are messing around, but the truth is that we take our performance very seriously. You can even take your humor seriously. I think you can guess that In the Baroque period people were funny; they were wild, wacky and trying things out. They would go through such a range of emotions even as they performed: every moment had to be different and surprising things would happen all the time. You have got to imagine yourself in the mood of that day, rather than looking at it like in a glass case in a museum and thinking at that is how it has to be played and that it will never change from that. What was really was about was changing things and taking people by surprise and jarring an emotional response from them. We do use some humor but we use a lot of other things as well.

PH: When is it a good interpretation and when is it over the top?

PA: That is a hard question to answer because we try to be totally free but try to preserve a core in everything we do. If we let everything go wild, I think we would lose it. So we try to keep to 60% or 70% of what we consider to be hard core Baroque playing, with the rhetorical devices, ornamentation etc. For the other 30% we can just do our own thing. It is hard to say; we do start with the music and then we think about what to do with it, how to present something different. We try lots and lots of different things but what we decide on is definitely suggested by the music. Take, for example, “The Potter’s Vessel” from “Messiah”; we started it really slowly and then sped it up a lot, just like a gypsy piece. I think that when you are translating a large-scale piece to a smaller ensemble, you will end up with a very pale imitation of it if you do not do something different with it.

PH: Do you ever change you take on a work after a while?

PA: Sometimes, but we are more interested in moving on and doing new pieces. There is a huge amount of work to get to this stage and, as we do so much from memory, it is hard work to put in a tiny change.

PH: In rehearsing, is the input from all of you?

PA: Yes it is, so rehearsal is a messy affair with lots of arguments, and occasionally storming out if people’s ideas not being taken seriously!

PH: How often do you rehearse?

PA: With a new project coming up we will rehearse a couple of times a week for a month or two. It has taken us around six months to put the new “Händel in the Wind” program together.

PH: In what kinds of venues do you perform? And in what countries?

PA: A complete mix. Because we obviously have a slight crossover appeal we will end up in theatres where we are the only classical music act, but sometimes we are in very mainstream classical series; it can be anything and everything. We never quite know. We do some 30% to 40% of performances in England, 25% in Europe, particularly in Germany and Italy, we usually do to USA concert tours a year and maybe once a year to the Far East. So it is quite busy!

PH: How long has “Red Priest” existed?

PA: We have been going for 17 years. David Wright is our third harpsichordist. Our first unfortunately died very young, our second harpsichordist played with us for ten years but decided he wanted a quieter life and we linked up with David three years ago.

PH: Do you teach?

PA: Not at the moment. I have in the past but decided to give it up when the group got going.

PH: Piers, your work with Red Priest is most thought-provoking. Many thanks for the interview and for sharing your ideas.

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