It is not an exaggeration to say that Colin Currie is one of the most exciting classical musicians at work today. The percussionist has been instrumental in securing a number of vital commissions from leading composers – Steve Reich, Elliott Carter and Rautavaara among them. Now he returns to HK Gruber for a second percussion concerto, into the open…, which he will give at Prom 5 with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and John Storgårds.
The piece is dedicated to the memory of David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. In a chat with Arcana Colin took us through the piece itself, the instruments he uses and how Gruber’s music responds to bereavement.
Do you remember your first encounter with the Proms?
Yes – I think I played before I attended! It was in 1993, with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. I was playing timpani, and we played Holst’s The Planets, and a new violin concerto by Thomas Wilson. It was a typical Proms programme.
What was your first Prom as a soloist?
I gave the premiere of Ruby by Joe Duddell in 2003. By then I had attended many Proms as a student. I would stay down in London over the summer and Prom ‘binge’, and from around 1995 I went to dozens of Proms, usually as a Prommer. I think it’s the best way to experience the festival, and the best way for me is to stand towards the back of the arena. The gallery also gives a really nice perspective.
It is amazing to play in the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, it is a huge hall and a wonderful audience. There were people packed around the orchestra in this concert, and it was wonderful.
You’ve worked with HK Gruber for nearly 15 years now. How do you think his music has changed and / or developed in that time?
He is always going through different stages of density in his music. At certain points his writing has become incredibly dense, and at other times he has the confidence to let things thin out, to use his charm and charisma. His qualities become transparent that way. He is developing often in a most challenging way, always looking for new angles and takes. His is an extremely creative and inquisitive mind, and he does things with a childlike wonder. An interesting comparison to showcase is the first percussion concerto, Rough Music, but I think this one is a better one. Rough Music is a wonderful piece, but this shows how things have moved on. It is more challenging for the soloist and for the orchestra, and it is highly intensified, more extreme, more daring and audacious!
The impression HK Gruber gives is that he has a keen sense of humour.
He does have a wicked sense of humour, that’s all true, but he is also extremely serious about his music, and it is done with lightness and enjoyment. It’s all about music and high art, nothing else matters, and he is incredibly passionate about it. If you don’t want to listen it is beyond him, and that’s why music is so strong for him.
You must have built up quite a set of memories of collaborations with composers.
Definitely. These composers I have got to know and I treasure those experiences, they are fascinating to me. I have come to relate strongly to their endeavours and the challenges they face. They are extremely strong characters, and not always easy, but it is an amazing sweep of personalities that I have been lucky enough to work with. I try to be a facilitator, and I will put them way ahead of anything that might be bugging me. I will put their music over and above their egos, and I try to put mine last!
into the open… is scored for a variety of percussion instruments. Can I get you to explain these ones?
Cencerros: “they are tuned cow bells”
Plate bells (or bell plates) “They sound like large church bells. There are three of them in this piece, and they are deep and resonant. None of the instruments are especially unusual, but the combinations Gruber uses are unusual. The plate bells are used with the marimba, gongs and temple blocks. It is a monstrous percussive machine! There are also six timpani with tom toms, snare and bongos – a grand total of 22 drums!”
Cajón (pronounced ca-hon) – “A box you sit on and play with your hands. It is used in Latin music.”
African balafon – “essentially a xylophone”
Did you know David Drew at all?
I did meet him briefly, but only meeting him once I was completely inspired by him. He was eccentric, and without being disrespectful it is fair to say he was crazy about music. I met him not long before he died, when I gave a concert in 2009. It was a concerto by Kurt Schwertsik, a Boosey & Hawkes composer, who is Austrian and a good friend of Gruber. Drew signed them in the 1980s I believe, and he was so passionate, jumping up and down like a child as he was energised by Mozart, Stravinsky and Schwertsik. I’ll be doing my best to do him proud in the performance.
(click here to watch an introduction to Schwertsik’s Marimba Concerto from the Scottish Ensemble
How does into the open… remember David Drew?
The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.
You have worked with John Storgårds on new percussion works previously. Do you find him particularly understanding to your requirements?
He is the best! He has a wonderful way of working with soloists, and he has been a vast presence in maintaining concerto-level performances. Nothing is ever too complicated, and nothing gets between him and the music. He always get the simplest approach, and gives us soloists confidence while also keeping us calm. He and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are fantastic, I could not be happier with them.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I am going to Vienna, which is a big deal as I am playing at Wien Modern, a festival I have revered from afar. I am playing the Gruber with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and it will be wonderful as it is my debut there.
I have some concerts further away but I am giving the premiere of a Percussion Concerto by Andrew Norman called Switch next season. That will be with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, they are celebrating their 75th anniversary in Cadogan Hall.
Are you continuing to work with Steve Reich?
Absolutely, the group is very busy touring away. Next season we will play the Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal Festival Hall, and will play the Quartet that he wrote for us. We are also very busy with upcoming projects and playing in Japan, and all around music. There is a great spirit for collective music, we have a lot of fun playing it. The Southbank performance will be part of my role as Artist in Association there, and after the Metal Wood Skin festival we have some wonderful plans in the pipeline!
Colin Currie performs into the open… with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds at the BBC Proms on Monday 20 July, in a concert that includes Haydn’s Symphony no.85 and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
You can get more information about his disc of Gruber’s first Percussion concerto, Rough Music, by clicking here.
Finally an obituary and appreciation of David Drew from the composer Alexander Goehr can be read on the Guardian website