A profile of percussionist Colin Currie

We chat to the leading percussionist as he prepares to give the premiere of Schwertsik's new concerto

21 January 2009

Colin Currie

The Scottish Ensemble comes to the Wigmore Hall on 11 February to perform a typically diverse program of old and new music, including Stravinsky's refined neo-classical ballet Apollon Musagète, and also Mozart's Divertimento in F K138.

At the centre of this concert is the London premiere of Kurt Schwertsik's new concerto for marimba and strings, Now you hear me, now you don't. This new work from the founder of the Third Viennese School of composition was jointly commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble and the Wigmore Hall, aided principally by the latter's scheme for new works that is underpinned by £500,000 of funding from Paul Sacher's grandson André Hoffman. The renowned percussionist Colin Currie, who along with the ensemble's artistic director Jonathan Morton made the decision to request a piece from Schwertsik in the first place, will take the solo part.

The concerto promises, considering the composer's fertile past form within the genre, to be an interesting exploration of the rich potential inherent in the rather uncommon juxtaposition of solo marimba with strings. The piece will be premiered in Glasgow at the City Hall on 3 February, tour to other venues in Scotland until 9 February, before finally coming to London on 11 February. Ahead of that date, I spoke to Colin Currie on the phone about the new Schwertsik concerto, about his work with the Scottish Ensemble, and about his own career so far.

I begin by asking the percussionist about the choice of Schwertsik to compose a concerto for him to play with the Scottish Ensemble, and about the degree to which he had been involved in its creation. He responds by saying that after hearing Fanferlizzy Sunnyfeet (a typically witty, colourful and melodic theatre piece Schwertsik wrote in the early eighties) a few years back, he was 'immediately intrigued'. Currie quickly got in touch with the composer's publishers and acquired 'everything he could' of Schwertsik's work. When the possibility of commissioning a concerto came up, Schwertsik was at the top of not only the percussionist's list, but also that of Jonathan Morton.

Colin CurrieI wonder then, after securing the services of the composer, if Currie's own distinctive musical personality had influenced the nature of the composition at all? The percussionist talks of a decisive conversation he had with Schwertsik before the composer had began work on the piece, where he emphasised his own desire for the work to avoid the typical 'gimmicks' that works for percussion can often fall back on. Empty showmanship and bolshy rhetoric were to be avoided at all costs. Schwertsik seemed happy to accord with this desire, I was told. Currie states though that besides this initial meeting, the finished work, which he received last summer and thus has had plenty of time to live with before its premiere, is, 'besides some minor edits, all Schwertsik'.

This brings the conversation onto the sound world of the work, and how it has been shaping up in rehearsals. Currie talks warmly of the 'beauty' and 'lushness' of the piece, and about the vivid textures that appear throughout. Occasionally he 'is at the forefront', whilst at others 'the strings take the top line'. The concerto is largely 'softly done', and I expect this, along with its chamber complement and 'seventeen or eighteen minutes' of length, suggest something quite intimate. The composer has in the past displayed a keen ear for instrumental colour, borne out here in his selection of the marimba to combine with strings. And his sharp melodic gift, anchored at once in the past yet looking always to the future, promises a vibrancy and richness that should contrast well with the clean lines of the Stravinsky and the Mozart, yet also sit comfortably alongside them as deeply interested in tradition, and conventions, as ends in themselves.

I question the percussionist on his collaboration with the Scottish Ensemble, and how he views their attitude to programming. Currie tells me that he likes their particular way of working (without a conductor and standing in a semi-circle in the manner of a chamber choir), and that their versatile programming practice 'presents a healthy challenge'. Though sometimes appearing obscure (for example they combined Corelli and Albinoni with Shostakovich in a recent concert), their juxtapositions always have some logic underpinning them, and in this instance Currie highlights the Viennese connection between Mozart and Schwertsik. After 'seeing and enjoying' the ensemble in September, the percussionist praises the vision of Morton, their leader, and speaks of the positive experience he's had in working up the Schwertsik with them.

Colin CurrieOur conversation ends with a brief consideration of the situation of new music in Britain's concert halls, and the percussionist's own efforts on its behalf. Currie believes the attitude towards new notated music to have 'improved in recent years', and he reflects that there has been 'steady progress' in terms of its proliferation on the concert stage. The tendency towards ghettoisation of contemporary music has 'gradually been dropped', with 'whole programmes' of new works in important halls, given by popular performers, becoming fairly commonplace. Currie believes that performing groups play a vital role in the cultivation and encouragement of new music, and he cites the Scottish Ensemble's eagerness in that area as a positive symbol of how the tradition can be renewed and enriched by new voices and fresh energies.

In his own career Currie has demonstrated a determined enthusiasm for the commissioning of new works. This has been a necessity owing to his instrument and the comparative dearth of repertory items it enjoys. His work with young composers continues to help shine a light on young talent. His recent recital disc on the Onyx label, Borrowed Time, conveys well the skill and force of Dave Maric's composing idiom, whilst his recording with the LPO under Marin Alsop of Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto demonstrates the worth of joining together older institutions with youthful voices. Currie talks about wanting to pursue this work with orchestras in future, remarking that he 'gets a lot from such collaborations', whilst he says he also wants to develop his work across genres, particularly with choreographers and others outside of his normal classical comfort zone. He has flourished thus far in his career in that area though, and his performance with the Scottish Ensemble on 11 February will increase that list of achievements even further.

The concert promises to be a fascinating evening where parallels and contrasts will be drawn between the old and the new, and a singularly talented soloist will execute an important, and all too rare, London performance of a concerto from Kurt Schwertsik, a composer after all much more celebrated in his native Austria than on these shores. After a string of glowing reviews the Scottish Ensemble have been building up an estimable reputation, and their relationship with the Wigmore Hall has been going from strength to strength; they play three dates there this season, with the upcoming appearance being followed by an outing in March when Jonathan Morton will lead them as soloist in a performance of Mendelssohn's early Violin Concerto in D minor. Before that though comes 11 February, and Kurt Schwertsik, Stravinsky, and Mozart.

By Stephen Graham

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