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Colin Currie drums up support for the Sound festival

Written by Keith Bruce, The Herald

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

article | The Herald

The young percussionist brings Steve Reich to Aberdeenshire.

Colin Currie is now 34 years old, coincidentally the age I had attained when I first saw the precocious teenager hitting things with the Junior Orchestra of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama getting on for two decades ago. While we've both travelled a bit in that time, I'll wager Currie has seen rather more of the world. He is spending an increasing amount of time in the US and has just returned from a tour of New Zealand with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Over the next couple of months, however, we have a chance to be reminded of his talent back in his homeland. In November he'll play Birtwhistle and Maxwell Davies on tour with the Hebrides Ensemble, and on the 23rd of this month he is one of the early attractions of Aberdeenshire's Sound festival, playing Steve Reich's Drumming with his own group.

With Glasgow's Concert Halls championing minimalism next weekend and Sound 2010 kicking of with a Less is More event, the music of Reich and his contemporaries is remarkably available in Scotland this month, and Currie believes that Drumming occupies a special place in the canon – one that mirrors that occupied by his own instrument in the world of contemporary composition. "Even people who don't like that type of music enjoy Drumming," he says, "and it is the crowning achievement of Reich's experimentation with phasing."

What Currie refers to, and what makes the piece such a compelling listen – quite intuitively, even when the listener does not fully appreciate technically what is going on – is the acceleration of one or more of the nine players out of one rhythmic pattern until they arrive in a place where another one is established. As a piece of writing, it is both highly skilled and very demanding to play, but harks back to something primal. "I think it is as far as one could go with that process," Currie adds. "It is the zenith of that train of thought."

Currie was asked to assemble a group to perform Drumming for a late-night Prom at the Royal Albert Hall four years ago, completing the programme with more Reich music. Its success brought further invitations, and the Colin Currie Group now draws on a pool of percussionists who are up to the demands of the music. So far the ensemble's concerts have been strictly Reich, but there are plans to extend the repertoire – plans about which Currie is not quite ready to talk.

This reticence is to some extent commercial confidence – there is also an upcoming premiere with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra about which he decides he should not speak – but Currie's wisdom in the business of promoting new music is based on remarkable experience. Through work written specifically for his virtuosic skills, he has expanded the percussion concerto repertoire by a dozen pieces, only one of which – designed for a specific occasion – has not gone on to have a long and successful life, not just in further performances by himself but often in the hands of other players too.

"I'm very lucky to be a percussionist," he says. "For many orchestras, a percussion piece is the solution to the ‘problem' of programming new music. It is important that I keep that work going."

Currie's most recent success has been with American composer Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, which was a Grammy award winner this year and is his most recent recording on the London Philharmonic Orchestra's own label, under former RSNO conductor Marin Alsop. With the RSNO and Alsop, he recorded Michael Torke's concerto for Naxos, and the budget label also put out his reading of James MacMillan's concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (which many prefer to the version by Evelyn Glennie, who premiered it). That and the Higdon were the pieces that he has been performing in New Zealand.

"I've just played Veni Veni for the 110th time. It is so dramatic and vivid, to perform it live remains very exciting. Audiences latch on to it, and that is partly the excitement of percussion with an orchestra, which is integrated so well, but it is also emotional – the plainchant which underpins it works at a spiritual level for the audience."

Energy and high quality orchestration are qualities that Currie also identifies in the Higdon concerto, which, probably not at all coincidentally, sits with MacMillan's Confession Of Isobel Gowdie on the live LPO recording.

With a concerto by Rautavaara, also with the LPO, the success of last season, and Kurt Schwertsik's Now You Hear Me, Now You Don't for marimba and strings (a Scottish Ensemble commission) currently enjoying a run of performances with Sinfonia Viva, those larger works are doing very nicely, thank you; but Currie has also championed shorter pieces, particularly the work of Dave Maric, a colleague in the Steve Martland band. Martland's own Starry Night, for string quartet and marimba, is still very much on his schedule of work, and Currie talks fondly of being part of the "Martland fraternity".

That attitude embraces a commitment to education that is encouraging a younger generation of players, coaching students at the Royal Academy in London in solo performance and marimba technique. From that perspective, as well as his own youthful experience, Currie is more than entitled to the strong opinions he voices about the way young players are treated in one specific arena. He was the first percussionist to make the final of the BBC's Young Musician of the Year, and it was one of the early stepping stones to his success, but he despairs of the way the contest has been treated.

"I'm scandalised by what has happened to that competition. All sense of taste and dignity has been put in jeopardy, as the way it is presented has been chipped away in recent years. I am really very alarmed at how the focus has moved away from the music and, annoyed as I am, I haven't raised my voice. I feel like perhaps I should."

Be warned, BBC. Because when Currie gets his teeth into something …

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

relevant events
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
23Sat 6.30 pmAberdeenPre-concert talk: Colin Currie Group, with Pete Stollery
23Sat 7.30 pmAberdeenColin Currie Group
6Sat 8.00 pmBanchoryHebrides Ensemble, with Colin Currie, percussion and Michael Popper, dance/choreography