Colin Currie: A passion for percussion

Scottish percussion star begins residency with Oregon Symphony this week


There must be something in the Scottish water that made the tiny country produce the two most prominent percussionists of the era: Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie. Still under 40, the Edinburgh-born musician begins his three-year tenure as artist in residence with the Oregon Symphony with this week’s round of outreach activities, culminating in three performances with the orchestra in which he’s featured soloist in fellow Scots composer James MacMillan’s 1992 masterpiece, Veni Veni Emmanuel, which Glennie originally recorded. (Currie has recorded it twice since and played it around 150 times around the world, including with Marin Alsop leading the Eugene Symphony in 2003.) MacMillan’s colorful 25 minute percussion concerto grew out of the composer’s Catholic faith, “a musical exploration of the theology behind the Advent message” and ends with an Easter hymn tune. It’s a big, dramatic piece whose theatricality is enhanced in live performance by the percussion soloist racing from vibraphone to woodblocks to marimba to drum set.

Colin Currie shows his Oregon spirit. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Colin Currie shows his Oregon spirit. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Currie’s performances with the OSO culminate a series of appearances around town, from solo and kid’s concerts at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center to a performance with Grimm actors at the Cleaners at the Ace hotel, to a Saturday performance with the symphony’s percussion section at the Portland Farmer’s Market at PSU and a solo marimba set at the hip Coava Coffee/Bamboo Revolution. He’ll also work with students from PSU and David Douglas High School and play St. Mary’s Home for Boys. Currie finds percussion to be an excellent gateway drug to music for the kids he’ll be working with at various schools. “Children and adults find percussion enticing “because it’s something people can pick up easily,” he told me. “If you try to play a French horn, you can’t get a sound out of it, but you can pick up a drum and very quickly get a sound as good as anyone can.”

Currie’s new position with the OSO continues a mutually satisfying relationship with Oregon. “I first performed with [the Oregon Symphony] a number of years ago and it was good, but now to play there is a great experience,” he told me in an interview a few years back. “That orchestra has been transformed. [Carlos] Kalmar is just the best. I’m the biggest fan of Portland. Whenever I come there I take time to go to as many of those amazing restaurants.”

Last fall, Currie’s ensemble premiered Steve Reich’s new quartet for pianos and vibraphones at a London festival where he also debuted MacMillan’s second percussion concerto and other new music by Louis Andriessen and Anna Clyne. He’s completing another residency with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and has a full season of chamber and orchestral performances at some of the world’s most prestigious venues. And he’s commissioned over a dozen new works for percussion, along with Glennie helping build a repertoire for a relatively young solo tradition. Because most of the music for percussion and orchestra has been written by living composers, his residency should bring a small but much needed dose of repertoire refreshment to the orchestra’s programming — including a brand new commission.

ArtsWatch asked one of Oregon’s top young percussionists, Kaleb Davies, to chat with Currie, finding out his favorite instrument (“I love the marimba, “he says. “It’s the most versatile instrument, and it’s the most alluring in terms of sound”) and favorite music to listen to around the house (“We listen to a lot of Talking Heads.”) —Brett Campbell.

Building a life in classical music

I think I always imagined a life in music; I’ve never imagined a life outside that, and that included my career right from the beginning. I can’t really recall it because I was extremely young, maybe two or three when I first started playing toy drums on make-believe drum sets from kitchen utensils.  I obviously had some kind of strong reaction to I think just the sheer excitement of the drums; I got that from somewhere. And so I think it was very instinctive, and for me it remained on that level for many many years – it was not until I was about thirteen that I started to sort of pursue sort of more serious studies in music.

I had phenomenal teachers between the ages thirteen and seventeen, where not only did I have a really wonderful percussion teacher, but I had a fantastic piano teacher as well. It was very very helpful and really opened up my concept of music, what could be done with music, and the power of music.

For those people lucky enough to have music teachers and be learning an instrument, then those teachers are essential in cultivating the right kind of interest and respect for the art form in the people that they’re teaching. But of course not everyone is going to be so fortunate as to have that kind of opportunity.

Connecting with audiences

On some level I really try and bring the music as close as possible to the audience, so I really try and make them feel like they’re part of what I’m doing.  So, as well as playing all the notes correctly and with the right amount of intensity — whether it’s a lot or somewhat less — people should always feel part of the activity. And, that’s to do with making sure that things are balanced, and that also I’m not exaggerating things; I’m playing things sufficiently with sufficient engagement to make them feel like that.

I would like to think it’s the music that I’m playing that people are interested in, but I think perhaps it’s true that people come and hear me because they’re interested in percussion. But, what I hope they come away with is some new respect for perhaps a composer or two that they didn’t know about. So, if people are coming initially because they have a percussive interest, I’m hoping they come away with a compositional interest.

Currie performing at Portland's St. Mary’s Home for Boys this week. Photo: Monica Hayes.

Currie performing at Portland’s St. Mary’s Home for Boys this week. Photo: Monica Hayes.

Reaching new audiences

A love of classical music is such a natural thing to me. I think as soon as people hear an orchestra live with this wonderful repertoire, I personally see no barrier whatsoever. So I think it’s the responsibilities of orchestras to just simply invest in bringing a young audience to them, whether that’s in rehearsals or by making it less expensive for them to attend concerts. I think it’s something that orchestras – some of them do already, but this cannot be stressed enough. I would hope that bringing enough young people to concerts — that would find enough young new fans for the art form. So it’s about access.

There’s actually not so much of a big premium on these events; people should feel happy to turn up and give something a go and feel good about that, and even if they don’t engage very strongly with the music, at least it’s an interesting new experience, and it’s something that will give them food for thought.

James MacMillan’s Veni Veni Emmanuel

Very excited [to play with the Oregon Symphony], yeah!  It’s an orchestra that I know well, and this piece is the central classic milestone in the repertoire, so it’s a central figure in the percussion repertoire. It always feels good performing it; I really enjoyed the rehearsal today.

This piece has particularly strong emotional content, so it’s extremely powerful – especially by the end of the piece where it really is quite emotional.

Kaleb Davies was the principal percussionist of the Portland Youth Philharmonic for two years, and now, fresh out of high school, is studying jazz drum set through Portland’s Alan Jones Academy of Music.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Bang on a drum slowly, quickly, softly &/or with a sledgehammer . . . Pound for pound, THIS is gonna be a particularly rousing 3 years @ the OSO – my pulse is already racing!

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