Percussionist Currie makes a virtuosic case for Elfman concerto with Utah Symphony

Sat Mar 23, 2024 at 11:31 am
Colin Currie performed Danny Elfman’s Percussion Concerto with David Danzmayr and the Utah Symphony Friday night at Abravanel Hall.

Danny Elfman is best known as a prolific composer of film scores. He’s written the music for such movies as Beetlejuice, Scrooged and The Nightmare Before Christmas, among many others. But in recent years he’s also ventured into writing classical works, and currently counts nine pieces in his concert portfolio.

This weekend, one of Elfman’s works is on the Utah Symphony’s program — his Percussion Concerto from 2022 with soloist Colin Currie, for whom the concerto was written. In addition to the vast array of instruments for the soloist, the work is scored for strings and large percussion section. With guest conductor David Danzmayr on the podium, Currie and the ensemble gave a stellar performance of the work Friday night.

Currie is one of today’s premiere percussionists, and it’s no wonder that Elfman wanted to write the work for him. The work needs a soloist with the agility to move quickly among the instruments that are positioned on either side of the conductor’s podium. At Friday’s concert, Currie handled the logistics with ease and gave a tour de force performance of the 30-minute work, which provided a showcase for his remarkable sense of rhythm as well as his sensitivity in expressing moods and emotions.

The concerto, though non-programmatic, is highly cinematic in character, which isn’t surprising given Elfman’s background in film. But since it is so cinematic, it’s also very pictorial and descriptive, and Currie underscored that in his playing. The work’s four movements run the gamut of expressions, from loud and boisterous in the outer movements to serene and ethereal in large parts of the inner movements. And Currie handled the ever changing and sometimes rapid shifts of textures and timbres with nuanced attention to detail.

The strings and percussion sometimes complemented the soloist and sometimes offered a frenetic counterpart to Currieis solo playing. Danzmayr offered solid accompaniment that allowed the soloist and the orchestra parts to mesh into a finely interwoven whole.

Currie opened the concert with Tromp Miniature, a piece for solo marimba by Bryce Dessner, who is also a film composer and a member of the rock band The National. The short work is a subtle study in cross rhythms and polyrhythms within an overall evocative and melodic framework, and Currie gave a sensitive and expressive reading of the piece. 

The concert concluded with a sturdy performance of Brahms’ First Symphony. Much has been made about how long it took Brahms to feel comfortable writing a symphony, but that discussion is immaterial to the work itself. The First is a splendid symphony that shows Brahms’ mastery of the symphony format, with four well crafted movements that thoroughly explore a range of expressions and emotions.

The Austrian-born Danzmayr, who is music director of the Oregon Symphony, captured the drama and passion of the opening movement with broad sweeping gestures that allowed the music to soar and unfold.

The middle movements were a perfect counterpoint to the effusive first movement in Danzmayr’s hands because of his thoughtful underscoring of the lyricism of the second movement and the expressive melodicism of the third. 

The finale, after a somber opening by horns and trombones, gradually transformed into a spirited outing in which Danzmayr coaxed bold playing from his strings and emphasized the dynamic vitality of the music, especially in the furiously energetic final section.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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