A Baroque groove master at work

A conversation with composer Andy Akiho and percussionist Colin Currie, featured on this weekend's Oregon Symphony concerts

Composer-percussionist Andy Akiho gestured across the room to a table in the corner of the Heathman Hotel’s cozy library. “I composed most of it right there,” he said. “They let me stay here until three in the morning sometimes.”

Akiho is speaking of his Percussion Concerto, which Colin Currie and the Oregon Symphony will premiere this weekend alongside two of Akiho’s heroes, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. Currie himself joined us, and both spoke fondly of Portland, where Akiho now spends half the year. Currie told me the first time he landed at PDX airport, he was immediately reminded of his native Scotland. “Then it rained all week,” Currie said, “and I thought, ah this is bliss!”

The percussionists maintain busy schedules. Currie will be conducting Steve Reich’s tribute to painter Gerhard Richter, Reich/Richter, and is excited about Scottish composer Helen Grime’s Percussion Concerto–very different from Akiho’s–which Currie commissioned and will be performing several times this year. Meanwhile, Akiho has been finalizing the recording of his LIgNEouS Suite for marimba and strings, is currently finishing an album with his band Miyamoto is Black Enough, and somehow also finds time to work on an eleven-movement quartet for Ian Rosenbaum’s Sandbox Percussion.

This weekend, though, it’s all about the long-awaited concerto: Akiho’s first major orchestral work (2015’s Ping Pong Concerto notwithstanding) is full of ceramic bowls, a meaty marimba, and all the rhythmic complexity and melodic verve we’ve come to expect from one of our favorite young composers. The Oregon Symphony performs at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

Arts Watch recently spoke in person with Akiho and Currie; their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

Inception, inspiration, orchestration

Andy Akiho: I’m obviously inspired by the city, because I wrote almost all of it here. There’s no story or anything, that’s why it’s just called Percussion Concerto for now—until Colin comes up with a story, then we’ll change the title.


Zakir Hussain & Rakesh Chaurasia preview: a conversation in concert

Kalakendra brings one of the world's greatest percussionists and a bamboo flute master to perform traditional Hindustani music

In my thirty-odd years as a lover of all kinds of music, I have seen Zakir Hussain perform live four times: twice with Remember Shakti, and twice with Masters of Percussion. On every occasion, the California-based tabla titan has astounded me with the depth and breadth of his musical intelligence: not only his fine attention to detail and his willingness to be a supportive accompanist, nor his wide-ranging curiosity and generosity with international collaborators such as John McLaughlin and fancy-pants Steve Smith, nor his exuberance and pedagogical approach to performance (sometimes giving mini-lessons mid-concert).

What really stayed with me was that Hussain, one of the world’s most renowned musicians, was always trying something new, whether it was some advanced technique or a unique instrument. And of course the global collaborations and conversations continue, most recently with a bunch of my own kin.

Zakir Hussain & Rakesh Chaurasia perform Sunday in Portland.

At this Sunday’s concert at First Congregational Church in downtown Portland, Hussain performs Hindustani classical music with bansuri master Rakesh Chaurasia, nephew of the world-famous bansuri player Hariprasad Chaurasia, with whom Hussain has been playing for decades. Like Hussain, Rakesh has augmented his pursuit of classical excellence with a modern musician’s taste for cross-cultural collaboration. He has recorded with Greek composer Alexandros Hahalis (have a listen to “Firebird”) and a ton of Indian musicians, and even has his own fusion group, Rakesh and Friends (have a listen to their 2013 debut, with its Yes-like closer in seven). His classical playing is, of course, impeccable.

In a phone interview with Hussain and email exchange with Chaurasia, we discussed how they plan a performance, how newcomers might best approach listening to Indian music, and how a concert is really a conversation.


Andy Akiho review: Music for strings, color, and percussion

Riveting Chamber Music Northwest performances showcase an exemplary 21st century composer

Earlier this summer, one of my fellow MHCC percussionists was practicing this uncanny little 5/8 riff on the vibraphone, and he insisted that it was in 4/4, or anyways was written in 4/4. I later came to realize that this layering of meter is a central feature of that composer’s music. The riff was from a piece called NO one To kNOW one (stylized capitalizations revealing hidden messages being another trademark of this composer), and the accompanying video became my introduction to the weird world of Andy Akiho.

A few weeks later, Chamber Music Northwest, which had earlier included the 35-year-old Akiho as one of the rising young artists in its Protege Project, devoted a couple of concerts to the South Carolina born, New York-based composer’s music.

For those of you who have yet to encounter Andy Akiho, let me give you my first impressions: young man, clean shaven, intense and relaxed in the manner of most serious percussionists; gracefully virtuosic at his instrument, the steelpan of Trinidad, which he studied under the legendary Ray Holman; nervous and self-effacing at the microphone when introducing his music and his collaborators; precise, complex, groovy, modern, and fun as hell as a composer. Much of what he writes has a populist, dancy feel, even when he’s borrowing dissonant harmonies from Iannis Xenakis or riffing on the metric-modulation ideas of Elliott Carter, which, in his hands, remind me more of the faux-African prog of King Crimson or the math-grooves of Swedish metal group Meshuggah.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo:

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At his first CMNW concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, Akiho was accompanied by frequent collaborator Ian Rosenbaum (percussion), along with Portland State University professor and Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz and fellow CMNW Protege Project artists Brandon Garbot (violin) and Yevgeny Yontov (piano) in arrangements of selections from his Synesthesia Suite, a collection of fourteen early compositions (twelve colors corresponding to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, plus one each for black and white) written following an experience of synesthesia induced by playing octatonic licks at 2:00 a.m. with Holman and over 100 other steelpan players in Trinidad. All four of the calypso-like “color pieces” played at Alberta Rose sounded wonderful in their percussion and piano trio arrangements, and I was especially amused by Daidai Iro (Orange), in which pianist Yontov took a break from all the extended piano techniques to sit cross-legged down-stage and play an adorable little toy piano.