Colin Currie is leading a generation of ever more sophisticated players, says Ivan Hewett .
“I remember once being invited to a sponsor’s reception after a concert in the States,” he says, “and one nice lady asked me, ‘So can you actually read music?’ I think she had this idea that I just rush round hitting stuff in an improvised way. That rankled a bit, because everything I do is about maximum precision.”
So how did he start, in a field that is conspicuously short of role models? “Well, I was always fascinated by drums, and I remember I was given a toy drum kit when I was three. And actually I did have a sort of role model, which was the jazz drummer Buddy Rich. I read about his legendary exploits, how he would practise difficult rhythms for hours and hours. He gave me the idea that being a percussionist was about overcoming technical hurdles.”
That steely determination quickly paid off. By the age of 13 he was playing in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, and in 1995 he won the percussion class of BBC Young Musician of the Year.
All this got Currie noticed, and well before he finished his studies at the Royal Academy of Music he was playing with top-flight orchestras such as the London Sinfonietta. One of his early champions was the conductor Marin Alsop, with whom he’s played dozens of concerts.
Now in his mid-thirties, Currie no longer needs champions. He’s commissioned about 15 concertos, and often teams up for recital tours with starry musicians such as the Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger.
Doesn’t he tire of the percussionist’s arduous life, with its truck-loads of gear that have to be set up laboriously for each concert? “Actually, that’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I can rely on finding pretty much everything I need wherever I go. But I do carry my own cymbals, which have a very special sound.”
Ah, that word “sound” again. In the end, isn’t it interesting and colourful sounds that percussion offers, rather than real music?
Currie is keen to put me right on this point. So up we go to the tiny attic practice space above his flat, where there’s just room for a marimba and us. “I’m working on a new concerto by Sally Beamish,” he says, “and there are passages that really have to be phrased like a vocal line. You have to lead the melody across the silences, like this…” He picks up two soft mallets, braces himself like a basketball player waiting for a pass, and launches into a row of phrases that make a delicate tracery of arabesques. The golden sound of the instrument tapers away magically. “Hmm,” he says, clearly not entirely happy, and has another go.
Back downstairs, he warms to his theme. “Being musical on percussion is like being musical on any instrument. It’s about poise and phrasing. You can play things in a flat, severe way, or in a rounded way; you can push the tempo or hold it back.
“But in any case, colour is a vital part of music, and we have this huge, wonderful palette of colours, which no other family of instruments can beat.”
Colin Currie premieres Kalevi Aho’s ‘Percussion Concerto’ on Apr 18 at the Festival Hall (0844 875 0073). Rautavaara’s ‘Percussion Concerto’ is out now (Ondine).