Colin Currie is leading a generation of ever more sophisticated players, says Ivan Hewett .
Look closely at a big symphony orchestra, and tucked away at the back behind the horns you’ll see a strange menagerie of noise-making objects. Some of them, like the marimba and tubular bells, will seem familiar. But many will not. There may be curious beasts with odd names that make strange, evocative sounds — Burmese temple gongs, cow bells, log drums, Chinese cymbals, bull-roarers, bell-trees, bird whistles.
This is the percussion section. It’s often referred to as “the kitchen sink department”. There’s more than a hint of condescension in that phrase, a suggestion that while proper instruments make notes, percussion can only summon up sounds.
But in the past 20 years or so there’s been a not-so-quiet revolution in the status of percussion. A new generation of virtuoso performers has sprung up, determined to show the world that these instruments can be as genuinely musical as any other sort. Inspired by them, composers are starting to write concertos for percussion and orchestra, and some of these have already attained near-classic status, with hundreds of performances around the world.
One of the best-known of these players is the Scottish percussionist Colin Currie. If his action-packed schedule is anything to go by, the field of percussion music is in rude health. This year he’s giving premieres of four new concertos, all written specially for him, on two different continents. He’s sponsored by a Californian firm of marimba manufacturers, and his name is emblazoned on their mallets.
Thanks to the efforts of Currie and a handful of others, including his well-known compatriot Evelyn Glennie, percussion is now welcome in polite musical company. But old prejudices die hard.
“I remember once being invited to a sponsor’s reception after a concert in the States,” he says, “and one nice lady asked me, ‘So can you actually read music?’ I think she had this idea that I just rush round hitting stuff in an improvised way. That rankled a bit, because everything I do is about maximum precision.”
So how did he start, in a field that is conspicuously short of role models? “Well, I was always fascinated by drums, and I remember I was given a toy drum kit when I was three. And actually I did have a sort of role model, which was the jazz drummer Buddy Rich. I read about his legendary exploits, how he would practise difficult rhythms for hours and hours. He gave me the idea that being a percussionist was about overcoming technical hurdles.”
That steely determination quickly paid off. By the age of 13 he was playing in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, and in 1995 he won the percussion class of BBC Young Musician of the Year.
All this got Currie noticed, and well before he finished his studies at the Royal Academy of Music he was playing with top-flight orchestras such as the London Sinfonietta. One of his early champions was the conductor Marin Alsop, with whom he’s played dozens of concerts.
Now in his mid-thirties, Currie no longer needs champions. He’s commissioned about 15 concertos, and often teams up for recital tours with starry musicians such as the Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger.
Doesn’t he tire of the percussionist’s arduous life, with its truck-loads of gear that have to be set up laboriously for each concert? “Actually, that’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I can rely on finding pretty much everything I need wherever I go. But I do carry my own cymbals, which have a very special sound.”
Ah, that word “sound” again. In the end, isn’t it interesting and colourful sounds that percussion offers, rather than real music?
Currie is keen to put me right on this point. So up we go to the tiny attic practice space above his flat, where there’s just room for a marimba and us. “I’m working on a new concerto by Sally Beamish,” he says, “and there are passages that really have to be phrased like a vocal line. You have to lead the melody across the silences, like this…” He picks up two soft mallets, braces himself like a basketball player waiting for a pass, and launches into a row of phrases that make a delicate tracery of arabesques. The golden sound of the instrument tapers away magically. “Hmm,” he says, clearly not entirely happy, and has another go.
Back downstairs, he warms to his theme. “Being musical on percussion is like being musical on any instrument. It’s about poise and phrasing. You can play things in a flat, severe way, or in a rounded way; you can push the tempo or hold it back.
“But in any case, colour is a vital part of music, and we have this huge, wonderful palette of colours, which no other family of instruments can beat.”
Colin Currie premieres Kalevi Aho’s ‘Percussion Concerto’ on Apr 18 at the Festival Hall (0844 875 0073). Rautavaara’s ‘Percussion Concerto’ is out now (Ondine).