Colin Currie brings probing mind and energetic technique to Pickman Hall

December 8, 2016 at 12:12 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Percussionist Colin Currie performed Wednesday night for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Percussionist Colin Currie performed Wednesday night for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The percussion section may be the most versatile of instrumental families. That’s certainly how Scottish percussionist Colin Currie sees it. “[As a percussionist,] you’re able to join almost any style of music,” he said in a recent interview.

And for Currie, that diversity of style is most apparent in contemporary music. Percussionists like him frequently walk a fine line between two contrasting sound worlds: driving minimalism and bristly modernism, or, to put it another way, downtown and uptown styles. 

Currie’s Boston debut, presented by the Celebrity Series Wednesday night at Pickman Hall, offered a riveting mix that touched on aspects of both. Pieces by Carter, Stockhausen, and Xenakis were paired with lesser-known but interesting works by Per Nørgård, Bruno Mantovani and Rolf Wallin. 

Currie is an energetic performer with a probing musical mind. His technique is firm and polished and his phrasing of the sometimes disjointed figures that pepper this music was given clear direction. That was especially evident in the pieces scored for vibraphone and marimba.

The highlight of those was Rolf Wallin’s Realismos Mágicos. The eleven short pieces of this collection from 2014 evoke the titles of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories. The sound world Wallin creates is thoroughly colorful and resembles that of Debussy’s Preludes. To conjure the image of water, the composer spins a thread of churning phrases that bubble to the music’s surface. In “El verano feliz de la señora” and “Un señor muy Viejo con unas alas enormas,” rumbling chords low in the instrument’s register create a halo effect of harmonics. Other movements have passages of spinning minimalist passages and are humorous for their brevity. “El cuento más corto del mundo” (“The shortest story in the world”) is little more than a flourish. Currie played with fine musicality and cool concentration to make a strong case for Wallin’s work. Even a ringing cell phone didn’t put too much of damper on a compelling performance.

Elliott Carter’s Figment pieces span six separate movements for different instruments. Figment V, scored for marimba, compresses fragmented melodies and bursts of chromatic harmony into less than two minutes. Currie performed the piece twice, each one bookending a first half that was played without pause. In his first run, the percussionist punched out the notes with care, though the parts failed to make a cohesive whole. His second time through the piece had more conviction and direction.

Toshio Hosokawa’s Reminiscence for solo marimba supplied some of the evening’s most beautiful moments. The work begins with a chord that seems to turn about in place, sounding on the edge of softness. The sounds swell into swirling patterns that rotate about the instrument, and loud chords punctuate the texture by work’s end. Currie, playing with firm control, created an effect that was earthy and elemental. 

Bruno Mantovani’s Moi jeu . . ., which followed, was an athletic event that took Currie all over the marimba. The piece is a dense web of knotty melody and harmony. Clarity was paramount as Currie’s hard mallets created a piercing resonance when the sticks stuck the wood. The percussionist gave the work a robust performance.

Stockhausen’s Vibra-Elufa is a similarly multi-hued work. Chords that form from short, choppy statements are left to resonate in a cloud of harmonics. Melody isn’t the first thing one encounters in Stockhausen’s music, but this piece is woven from fragments of singing phrases. Currie conjured the jazz-tinged lines and harmonies with sensitive touch.

Filling out the first half was Per Nørgård’s “Fire over Water,” a movement from his I Ching for mixed percussion. Mathematical formulas are the basis for this interesting work, though the effect of such a controlled musical fabric may be lost on listeners hearing the piece for the first time. One, though, is struck by its propulsive rhythms, which spin from repetitive thuds to mix and cross in different meters and tempos. The middle section features the vibraphone in a wash of chromatic harmony that leaves ringing overtones in its wake. Three gong strikes, sounding with deep resonance, conclude the work. Currie’s performance had buoyant energy and he coaxed a color wheel of effects from the instruments spread across the stage.

Similarly rhythmic, Xenakis’ Rebonds pieces are works where the performer chooses the order of the two movements. Currie performed the second of the set Wednesday night. Scored for tom-toms, bongos, bass drum, and wood blocks, the piece beams with energy. Propulsive statements featured Currie in playing of rapt intensity, and the knock of different drums culminated in a driving pulse, which, taken at a deliberate tempo, matched the intensity of a bugle corps’ drum line. 

Energy and precision also marked Currie’s encore, a rousing interpretation of Alan Emslie’s Hugh’s Chilled Red for solo snare drum. 

The next classical music event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature the Danish String Quartet in music by Beethoven and Schnittke 8 p.m. January 28 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661

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