Percussion wizard Colin Currie makes use of the word "adventure" throughout a brief telephone interview from his home in London. Adventure is the thing he looks for in performance, and when he attends a concert and feels the performance is missing something, it is usually that spirit of adventure. "I love adventures and I should never be too safe," Currie says, preparing to embark on one of his most unique musical adventures with conductor David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Over three concerts in October, Currie will play three different concertos: Steven Mackey's marimba concerto Time Release, on Friday, October 3 at 10:30 a.m.; the U.S. premiere of HK Gruber's Rough Music, on Saturday, October 4 at 8 p.m.; and Christopher Rouse's visitation on Wagner's Gotterdamerung, on Sunday, October 5 at 3 p.m.
Currie's percussion concerto marathon is a musical feat he has never attempted before, and an adventure he may not have considered if not for the invitation of the SLSO's music director, David Robertson. "Robertson is a hero of mine," Currie says unabashedly in his soft Scottish brogue. "When I play with him I feel totally unfettered. I feel able to play better than I can. He not only has a great technical mastery and a deep knowledge of the repertoire, but with David making music is fun. He has a real enjoyment and love of what's happening on stage."
Even with such strong admiration for Robertson, Currie didn't jump at the chance of performing three different: and difficult: concertos with a major orchestra over three days. First there were a number of logistics to consider. "How much rehearsal time, which pieces in what order..." Currie enumerates a list of challenges: the precise setup of the percussion battery that each concerto demands must be arranged with the stage hands, and the soloist is not alone in this marathon: the orchestra plays three works it has never performed before. "But after figuring it all out," Currie says with enthusiasm, "in the end it was irresistible. It's an opportunity to play three marvelous pieces, and if David Robertson thinks I can do it, I should listen to him."
Currie encapsulates the musical journey that he, Robertson, the SLSO, and St. Louis audiences may take next month. "It's quite carefully designed," he explains. "The heavier, weightier piece is the evening concert [Rough Music], but the Gruber is also the great underrated percussion concerto: very clever and full of contrasts. It's a very natural piece of music with moments of real tension: and it ends in savagery. It's truly monumental with a big orchestra, with big demands on the trumpets and the orchestra timpani player [Richard Holmes]."
The design of the event is partly one of contrasts, the orchestral weight of Rough Music follows the more intimate and understated Time Release of Steven Mackey. Currie gave the work its Carnegie Hall premiere with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last season, a piece that the composer describes as emanating from the tonal nature of the marimba itself: "the note will bloom, decay and die relatively quickly in a predetermined time line" Mackey has said, with this brief life-and-death sound replicated by the accompanying instruments throughout the orchestra.
Currie describes Time Release as "a very touching piece of music, a very kind of 'grownup' concerto. Steve Mackey's music can be quite whacky. 'Whacky Mackey,'" he laughs. "But I told him I like his more reflective moments. He was drawn to write a big marimba concerto, and the second movement is very playful: where you get the whacky, the unpredictable: but in the end the piece is very tuneful, very reflective."
The percussion concerto marathon concludes with a truly grand finale, Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, a fanciful work that begins where Wagner's Ring cycle: and the world: ends, with the adventures of a greedy dwarf, Alberich. "The Rouse is technically very, very hard," Currie emphasizes. "I couldn't believe the tempo markings when I first played it [in 1999], but now I've played it over 30 times. It's a real strong piece in my repertoire. It really is fun, a show-stopper, with a rock 'n' roll section: very virtuosic. It has a charm to it ... and is just knocking on the door of humor. It's very loud and very fast. I can't wait to do this with David and the orchestra."
The sometimes outlandish Rouse concerto even has a moment that sounds as if the composer were channeling the late drum legend Buddy Rich, a reference that Currie immediately acknowledges. "I did hear Buddy Rich on his last European tour,"he recalls, "he died of a heart attack on that tour. He was the 'Super Drummer' and was really inspiring, but I fell in love with orchestral music and 20th-century music. Composers like Stravinsky became heroes to me."
Buddy Rich, Igor Stravinsky, David Robertson: musical adventurers all, and add to that list Colin Currie, who chose the rarely traveled path of percussion virtuoso as a career. He reflects on his journey as one that was care- fully considered. "I never set my sights too high. I very gradually became a soloist. I thought I'd become a freelance player along with working in an orchestra, but by my mid-twenties [Currie is now in his early thirties] I didn't have time to be an orchestral player any more because I was getting so much solo work. It's all been an adventure to me and so exciting."
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.