In Currie’s Hands, New Concerto Has Precision, Panache

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At the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s Percussion Concerto, soloist Colin Currie performed on everything from ceramic soup bowls to a car-brake drum, in addition to other drums and mallet instruments. (Oregon Symphony photos by Jacob Wade)
By James Bash

PORTLAND – Watching Colin Currie wield chopsticks on a baker’s dozen of ceramic soup bowls created a lasting impression during Andy Akiho’s Percussion Concerto, which received its world premiere by the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Oct. 12. The 30-minute piece, consisting of three movements and an interlude, also featured the virtuosic percussionist playing the toy piano, vibraphone, glockenspiel, kick drum, snare drum, and a car-brake drum. Currie, who was the orchestra’s artist-in-residence from 2015-2018, performed each instrument with precision and panache, always impressively in sync with the orchestra.

“Rosewood,” a soothing marimba movement, sounded over a thick carpet of symphony strings.

In his prefatory remarks, guest conductor David Danzmayr mentioned that Akiho tried hundreds of ceramic bowls in the Chinatown district of New York City to find the right ones. They were tuned to a 12-tone scale and formed the centerpiece of the first movement, “Ceramic.” With two chopsticks in each hand, Currie generated sounds that reminded me of chimes, but with less resonance. An exciting cadenza was both inventive and playful. The orchestra supported Currie with a percussive texture that had players rapping the cellos with their hands, woodwinds making high-pitched beeps, plus violins and violas plucking pizzicatos. Intensely complex rhythmic passages became faster and faster, with Currie blitzing the bowls with dazzling speed.

Among the instruments to get a solo turn: a toy piano.

The second movement, “Rosewood,” opened with Currie playing the marimba soothingly above a thick carpet of strings. The leisurely atmosphere shifted to a quicker pace that became agitated and then bombastic until the orchestra cut out, leaving the plaintive and tender sound of the marimba to linger.

The interlude, “Hammers,” featured a duet between Currie and concertmaster Sarah Kwak, but no orchestra or conductor. This time, Currie played a toy piano and tapped a  glass bottle, and Kwak matched him with light phrasing. The combination evoked the atmosphere of an intimate conversation.

In the final movement, “Steel,” sustained tones from Currie’s vibraphone faded in and out of the orchestra. After moving to the glockenspiel, he began a simple melody that was picked up and repeated by the marimba. Once again, the tempo accelerated. Delightful riffs from the flutes and piccolo could be heard as the piece grew louder, and it ended with a series of stuttering punches from the entire ensemble that had the audience applauding before it realized that several more punches were required.

Conductor David Danzmayr, composer Andy Akiho, and soloist Colin Currie take their bows.

The concert opened with Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, which, in its unexpected twists and turns, complemented the Akiho piece perfectly. The gentleness of “The ‘Saint-Gaudens’ in Boston Common” evoked the sensation of fog lifting in the early morning. A sprinkling of notes from the piano, a breezy flute, and a snatch from a folk tune drifted about aimlessly. That contrasted well with the second movement, “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” which climaxed with a cacophony of crisscrossing marching bands.

As if inspired by the blazing cacophony, a loud cell phone ring interrupted the pause before the final movement, making this reviewer wonder what Ives would do with cell phone sounds if he were alive today. In “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” strings laid down a quiet blur, the horns climbed slowly, the brass crashed in. After everything subsided, the strings calmly prevailed – perhaps expressing the continuous flow of the river.

Austrian maestro Danzmayr: a contender? (danzmayr.eu)

After intermission, the orchestra delivered an incisive performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite (1945 version). Demonstrating exceptional pacing and eliciting thrilling dynamics, Danzmayr and his forces etched the Russian folktale of the magical bird, daring prince, evil king, and beautiful princess with colorful details.

The opening section suggested mystery and myth. The oboe and English horn emerged from it all with delicate intimacy. The woodwinds fluttered. The French horn solos exuded a noble and hopeful quality. After lulling the audience with a hushed pianissimo, the orchestra jolted everyone into attention with an emphatic slam. It was easy to picture the king and his ogres exhausting themselves during the “Infernal Dance.” The bassoon solo announcing the “Lullaby” was caressingly lovely and enchanting; it led to a joyous triumphant finale.

The audience responded to the performance enthusiastically, bringing Danzmayr to centerstage several times. Concertmaster Kwak signaled the orchestra’s approval by not standing and allowing the applause to shower on the maestro. Because of his outstanding conducting, Danzmayr must be considered one of the serious contenders to replace the orchestra’s music director, Carlos Kalmar, who will step down after the 2020-2021 season.