ALBANY — Scottish percussionist Colin Currie had one stipulation when he asked composer Julia Wolfe to write him a new concerto.
“He wanted what would be fresh and challenging,” Wolfe said.
The result, “riSE and fLY,” will receive its U.S. premiere on Saturday with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and Currie as the featured soloist.
Wolfe has always loved percussion and in many of her works has included substantial parts for that section. Even in college she belonged to a drumming group.
“I carried a conga drum around on my back,” she said with a laugh. “It became a part of me.”
But writing only for percussion was something else.
“It’s an incredible color. But the first time I wrote for percussion (“Dark Full Ride” for four drum sets in 2002), I was terrified. There was no pitch,” she said.
Albany Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
HOW MUCH: $59 – $19
MORE INFO: 694-3300, www.albanysymphony.com
That’s when she started to listen more closely to drums and all the various instruments that make up a percussionist’s closet.
“As you get into percussion, you discover it has pitch,” she said. “There are highs and lows. There are more resonant spots. You think of the shape of pitch. Pitch surrounds you everywhere. In the morning, a car horn is blowing. Someone is washing windows. Everything has pitch. Listening opens your ears to work with sound in a fresh way.”
As Wolfe and Currie talked, the idea of not using mallets came up. Currie was used to using a mallet or stick to create a sound. What about using only his bare hands?
“We developed the piece together. We started from scratch,” Wolfe said. “We went to the elemental level on how to play percussion.”
Inspired by traditional folk music and hip hop, they decided that Currie would slap his chest or thighs, snap his fingers, clap, and stomp his feet in sophisticated cross rhythms for the first section and then use found objects like washer tubs, stove racks, or trash cans to hit for the second section.
Currie also knew that what he would wear could affect the sound.
“I’ll be wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and boots. I’ll be rough and ready,” he said from Brazil where he was taking a brief holiday.
“What I’m wearing is quite important for the sound. For instance, I couldn’t wear a leather jacket because I’ll be moving around a lot and you need a good quality dirty sound. Not too clean. The mics will pick it up. I’ll rely on full tech support.”
Microphones are important because Wolfe has written a highly rhythmic, driving and sometimes raucous orchestral part. She was especially inspired by American folk tradition and American labor history, which includes songs sung by chain gangs.
“I did a lot of research and listened to the Alan Lomax collection and borrowed a fragment from the chain gang songs,” Wolfe said.
The title of the percussion concerto is also from those songs.
“I wanted the title to have movement. There’s a shout feeling from the small to capital letters,” she said.
Currie said he is very pleased with the 25-minute work, which he premiered in 2012 in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and has since performed at least twice more.
“The piece has a great shape. It starts smoothly and builds up,” he said. “Sometimes I get carried away [with all the slapping], but not enough to harm myself. It’s all to do with balance: how the qualities of sound fit together, and then are organized into a musical line. And the rhythms always have to be good. It’s captivating.”
This will be the third time Currie has performed with the ASO under David Alan Miller.
“They are so great, so adventurous, so amazing. It’s a wonderful thing,” he said.
For Wolfe, it will be an ASO debut, but not her first time working with Miller.
“He gave me my first orchestral commission in 1989 when he was conducting the New York Youth Symphony,” she said.
“He had the faith in me, and I was pretty green. It was an amazing experience to hear my piece live at Carnegie Hall. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. And now I’m the chair of the symphony on the committee that commissions young composers.”
ASO staff, however, will have an unusual errand when Currie arrives.
“We’ll be going shopping for tubs, like washing tubs,” he said, adding that he’ll be testing them out to make sure they “sound excellent to me.”
As for the rest of the program, with Currie being Scottish, Miller went with a Scottish theme and chose a work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who lives on the Orkney Islands, an archipelago in northern Scotland, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”).
Miller and Currie will also talk at the Friday at noon lunch series at the Albany Public Library at 161 Washington Avenue.
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