There was a time not too long ago when the prospect of a percussionist launching a solo concert career would have been impossible. There was no repertoire to support such a venture and major composers had little interest in exploring the percussion's sonic capabilities.
Since no historic precedent existed, artists such as Colin Currie and Evelyn Glennie forged their own path in an effort to spread the word about their collective instruments' myriad tonal characteristics. Both are Scottish percussionists who have earned international acclaim for their efforts to legitimize new works for percussion.
Between them, Currie and Glennie have been responsible for commissioning more than 75 concertos for percussion, many of which have since become standard works in one of the fastest-growing musical repertoires.
Currie will make his Oklahoma City Philharmonic debut this week in a performance of Jennifer Higdon's 2005 “Percussion Concerto,” a work commissioned for Currie by orchestras in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Dallas. Currie premiered the work in each city.
Before Higdon began writing the concerto, she and Currie met to discuss details about which percussion instruments would be featured by the soloist and how they would interact with the orchestral part. Higdon also made the unusual decision to showcase the orchestral percussion section, with many passages designed to be a dialogue between the section and the soloist.
“After our initial discussion, she went away and wrote the piece in its entirety without any further input from me,” Currie said recently by telephone from London. “She did, however, leave the solo cadenza entirely to my own devices. I've really tried to make it a Higdon cadenza that is fairly seamless from the previous material.”
Cast in one continuous movement that is divided into three distinct sections, Higdon's concerto keeps the soloist quite busy throughout, with featured passages for marimba, vibraphone, crotales, temple blocks, woodblocks, cowbell, gong, various cymbals, tom-toms and bongos.
“What the piece does without any kind of apology is to present a very bright and exciting picture of percussion at its most exuberant,” Currie said. “It's a piece that does have a lot of things on display but in no way is it merely a display piece. And I think because of Jennifer's intriguing use of harmony and fantastic use of orchestration, it becomes really quite a deeply felt work.”
Currie's setup will be spread across the front of the stage, a portion of which will be situated on either side of the conductor. That requires the soloist to move back and forth between areas, an occupational demand that equates to traffic control.
“If a composer is writing a piece that has multiple setups, it's important to leave ample time to get from A to B to C to D,” Currie explained. “Otherwise you're left with a bit of a spectacle which isn't always welcome. In this work, there are plenty of short gaps in the orchestral passages which give me time to turn pages and change sticks.”
Because of the high costs involved in commissioning any new piece of music today, it's not unusual for a consortium of orchestras to share the cost. Another benefit is that a new piece of music gets multiple hearings instead of one or two. Not surprisingly, the concerto repertoire (for all instruments) is burgeoning with many new works that fall into obscurity after their premieres.
“Obviously, with the more well-known composers — Jennifer is incredibly popular, for example — it is proportionally easier to get subsequent performances,” Currie said. “If the quality is there and I have a piece that I believe in and I feel is worth hearing repeatedly, then it will get a chance to be heard.
“I must say I feel very good about the concertos that I've premiered which now number over 20. Of those pieces, the vast majority have gone on to have life after the premieres. The Higdon is a very proud example because I've played that piece on average once a month, every month since the work's premiere in November 2005. That is one that is already a classic.
“I think we're in a key stage today where the repertoire needs composers and performers to secure the advances made in the past two decades. It's a time of consolidation for the art form and a time to make extra sure that every concert is a good one and that the pieces we play have artistic depth.”
When one considers that percussionists are a new breed of solo artists, it's not surprising that their repertoire consists entirely of works written during the past half century. As with any musical artist, the concert percussionist's career is shaped by the available repertoire.
“I think composers are well aware of this,” Currie said. “It's been question of getting some excellent new music to play or go home. The impetus has come from the vacuum if you like, but at the same time I would probably choose to do this in any case since contemporary music is my overriding passion in terms of the music I perform.
“I make no apology or any kind of disguise about the fact that that's what I would bring to an orchestra. It requires the audience to meet the repertoire half way and most people in the room will be hearing the piece for the first time.
“I hope that especially with percussion, the immediacy of the art form is something that helps bring it to life in real time. If a performance captures someone's imagination, it could be a springboard to further investigation or seeking out other similar works, either in live performance or on recording. It's an entirely positive situation.”
Titled “Motion & Emotion,” this classics concert will also feature Aaron Copland's “Fanfare for the Common Man” and excerpts from Tchaikovsky's ballet “Swan Lake.” Music director Joel Levine will conduct.