Sometimes the percussion section of the orchestra gets short shrift — at least in terms of music specifically written for it. Not so, this time. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday, Jan. 31 concert at the Music Center at Strathmore will feature the United States premiere of a percussion concerto.
The piece was written by Scottish composer Helen Grime, whose works have been commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Music Center, among others.
British percussionist Colin Currie commissioned the Grime concerto, said BSO Music Director and Maestro Marin Alsop. “We signed on because we jump at every chance to work with this remarkable, charismatic artist,” she said. “I’ve worked with Currie many times. He is perhaps the most prominent advocate for the soloistic possibilities of percussion instruments out there. There’s no doubt in my mind the piece is going to be fabulous.”
What appealed to Currie in choosing percussion instruments? “I think I was just unstoppably drawn to the sheer excitement of the drums, at first,” he said. “This dates back to a very early age, when I was just 2 or 3 years old.” A decade or so later, he began to appreciate that “percussion is much more than just pure fireworks, and what a marvelously deep and wide-ranging art form it is.”
Currie believes the orchestra’s percussion section excites listeners in general. “The percussion team seems to attract the most attention and interest of vast swathes of the audience,” he said. “What may be less well understood are the skills involved: to place every sound perfectly from the back of the band, to be adept at a huge range of techniques and to be able to move from one instrument to the next smoothly and efficiently.”
He noted that “the demands on an orchestral percussionist have increased dramatically in recent decades and they are some of the most versatile musicians onstage.”
A solo and chamber percussionist as well as a champion of New Music (AKA classical music’s cutting and creative edge), Currie is known for his versatility. He founded the Colin Currie Group in 2006 specifically to perform the music of contemporary composer Steve Reich. “New Music generally works best when it is contextualized, or introduced on some level from the stage, perhaps by the composer or in my case, soloist,” Currie said. “People’s tastes vary enormously of course, but if you believe strongly in what you are playing, that also comes across and becomes part of the magic pull of the notes.”
As for his percussion repertoire, Currie “plays anything and everything — or has fun trying. Of course, I do play a lot of the mallet instruments — the marimba and vibraphone being at the fore, as indeed they are in the new Helen Grime concerto.” Being a percussionist keeps you on your toes, he added, as, “from one season to the next, you are constantly amassing new skills. It’s challenging, but adorable, too!”
The orchestra also will perform two 20th century pieces by Otterino Respighi: the well-known “Pines of Rome” (1924) and the lesser-known “Brazilian Impressions” (1928). Rounding out the program will be Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” (1873).
Alsop said she works closely with the director of artistic planning and others in the organization to develop the season’s programs. With many points of view to consider, things come together “organically,” she said. Sometimes, there’s a theme. “In this case,” Alsop added, “I have been music director of the São Paulo Symphony in Brazil since 2012 and have come to love the rich musical traditions there, which are a combination of African, Caribbean and Latin American influences. Respighi traveled to Brazil in the late 1920s to conduct his music and similarly fell in love with the sights, the people and the culture.
“This program is intended to celebrate this beautiful and diverse country. Percussion is, of course, a big part of Brazilian music, so when the opportunity to present a new percussion concerto came up, it all fell into place.”
The two Respighi pieces are the program’s “centerpieces,” Alsop said. “They are both depictions of places — musical postcards.” Written in three sections, “Brazilian Impressions” evokes the heat and humidity of the rainforests, a snake farm Respighi visited, and the folk songs and dances of Carnival. “It’s a more reserved and impressionistic piece than ‘Pines,’ so I think it will be a nice contrast to the big brass of ‘Pines,’” Alsop said.
Alsop expressed pride about “the community” the BSO has built around living composers like Grime. Each season, BSO commissions and performs new work. “Symphonic music is a living, breathing tradition,” she observed. “All of the masterpieces audiences know and love were new at one time, so we take our responsibility as caretakers of this art form seriously.”
Introducing new works, she said, “opens our ears so that audiences hear the masterpieces in a fresh way. Plus, we cast away this feeling of being a sort of mausoleum and instead give voice to human creativity and expression that is very much alive.”
The BSO concert will begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, at The Music Center of Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets, ranging from $35 to $75, are available online at www.bsomusic.org or by calling 877-BSO-1444.