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Interview: Colin Currie, virtuoso percussionist

Written by Kenneth Walton, The Scotsman

Reproduced by kind permission of The Scotsman

article | The Scotsman

As one of the virtuoso percussionists who have come out from the shadows of the orchestra in recent years, Colin Currie is keen to keep the revolution rolling

Like most percussionists, Colin Currie started out by playing the drum kit in his bedroom to anything that had a popular swing to it.

"As a youngster, I was into big-band music, as long as it had Buddy Rich on the drums. Then I got into pop music," says the Edinburgh-born star, who, having cast boyhood influences aside, is now one of classical music's hottest solo virtuosi.

This week, he teams up with the Hebrides Ensemble in a challenging programme of Peter Maxwell Davies' Versalii Icones, Harrison Birtwistle's Axe Manual and Thomas Ades's Court Dances from The Tempest, which opens in Perth on Friday, before moving on to Aberdeenshire's Sound festival on Saturday, with two further performances in Inverness and Edinburgh next week.

Thinking back to when it all began for him, Currie reckons it was simply the fascination of having to use all four limbs to play the drums. "It had a magic and mystery about it," he says.

Nonethless, the Damascene conversion to classical music came quite early on, he says, through a combination of stimuli - "hearing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring for the first time, and through exposure to really interesting new music as a member of Lothian Schools Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, where I was involved in the premiere of Edward McGuire's Glasgow Symphony". But all that was experienced from the back of an orchestra as part of the all-purpose percussion section.

Nowadays, Currie is a front-liner, operating in a world that was once void of suitable, if any, solo repertoire, and which, through a revolution that has rocketed up tempo over the past couple of decades, has transformed the status of percussionists from orchestral spare-parts operators (there was a time when the double bassists in German court orchestras doubled as the timpanists) to bona fide artists in their own right.

Now in his mid-thirties, he has been as influential in shaping that revolution as his older compatriot Evelyn Glennie. Currie has commissioned a mind-boggling 12 concertos from composers as diverse as Jennifer Higdon, Simon Holt, Michael Nyman and Christopher Rouse. And like Glennie, he is one of the great champions - both live and through recordings - of James MacMillan's seminal percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel.

"It was a new piece when I started music college," he recalls. "And it was an absolutely pivotal work that tipped the balance in favour of percussion as a serious concerto vehicle. Without it, I don't think the potential for successive new concertos would have been the same."

He's proud of those he has generated.

"They've all gone on to have new life, and there are plenty more in the pipeline," he promises. His next concerto premiere in Scotland will be with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in its 2011-12 season.

But while he spends 90 per cent of his professional life performing concertos as the spotlight artist in front of a symphony orchestra, Currie also values the opportunity these days to perform "with friends". Earlier this year he formed the Colin Currie Group, pulling together an elite group of young percussionists.

One of its main repertoire pieces is Steve Reich's Drumming, which the group performed last week in Aberdeen as part of the Sound festival's focus on minimalism. His return to the North-east with the Hebrides Ensemble this week is just another example of Currie the musical collaborator, and the thirst he has to perform in as wide a repertoire arena as possible.

Indeed, in Max's Versalii Icones, the real focus - other than on the dancer (who notoriously danced practically naked in the 1969 premiere) - is primarily on the solo cellist, in this case Hebrides' artistic director William Conway. Currie's role in this will simply be as one of the six-part ensemble.

Birtwistle's Axe Manual, on the other hand, puts the percussionist centre-stage. "It's a big piece for piano and percussion, and it's a huge play for the percussionist, quite concerto-esque," he explains. Written in 2000, Currie describes it as a huge leap by Birtwistle into the world of solo percussion. "He uses the piano as just another 'manual', in the keyboard sense, which, in tandem with the marimba and vibraphone, in effect creates one multi-manual instrument performed by two players".

As for the title, it's a play on words and a clear reference to the pianist who appeared in its first performance, Emmanuel Ax.

Although Currie has played it several times over the past year with pianist Nicholas Hodges, including a performance at London's Wigmore Hall, he will team up this time by Simon Smith, a familiar face to Scottish audiences through his adventurous appearances with the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust.

Away from the live platform, Currie continues to roll out important CDs. He has recorded MacMillan's Veni, Veni Emmanuel for the second time, on this occasion with the composer conducting the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, though a release date is "up in the air". More concrete are plans to issue a recording of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara's concerto Incantations with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on the Ondine label.

Currie is hot property around the globe, particularly in America, where he finds himself performing "every other month". While he still enjoys listening to jazz and pop ("only the good underground stuff"), his heart, he says, "is firmly with the classics".

He takes his role seriously, both as a world- class performer, and as an ambassador for a family of instruments that was once about as attractive as a set of kitchen utensils.

"Up until recently, music colleges had to be careful how they addressed percussion teaching," Currie maintains. "Their main aim was to train percussionists simply to work, not to buck the trend and develop skills to a much higher level. Things are a lot better now, but the whole issue is still in need of constant renewal."

But then, you'd expect nothing less from a percussionist than to keep on banging the drum.

This article has been reproduced by kind permission of The Scotsman.

relevant events
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
23Sat 7.30 pmAberdeenColin Currie Group
6Sat 8.00 pmBanchoryHebrides Ensemble, with Colin Currie, percussion and Michael Popper, dance/choreography