The Rhythmic Odyssey: Exploring Danny Elfman's Percussion Concerto with Colin Currie
Duet Partner
March 25, 2024
The Rhythmic Odyssey: Exploring Danny Elfman's Percussion Concerto with Colin Currie

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to hear Danny Elfman's Percussion Concerto performed live with soloist Colin Currie and the Utah Symphony. Premiered in London in 2022, this concerto not only showcases Elfman's prowess as a composer but also highlights the virtuosity of percussionist Colin Currie, whose interpretation breathes life into the intricate rhythms and textures of the piece. It's a a composition that stands as a testament to the symbiotic relationship between imagination and craftsmanship.

The first thing I noticed about the evening was the composition of the audience: in a sold-out event, people dressed as characters from Elfman's movies (most of which have been collaborations with Tim Burton) such as Wednesday, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Simpsons and others. The energy and positive feedback from the audience continued after the intermission into a performance of Brahms' glorious 1st Symphony.

Currie began the evening by greeting the audience and thanking the Utah Symphony for being one of the first places he performed in 1999. He also introduced a solo piece, Tromp Miniature, by Bryce Dessner, who is also a film composer and a member of the rock band The National. By opening the evening with this piece for solo marimba, Currie launched us into a soundscape that is likely less familiar to many, showing the melodic and meditative qualities of the instrument and his range as a highly musical performer.

But back to the concerto. Written in four movements, it is non-programmatic, and yet each movement has its own story to tell. The first movement is called "Triangle," due to the relationship of the soloist with two other percussionists positioned behind him on either side of the stage. The second movement is an homage to Shostakovich and sounds atonal in some parts. The third movement is the most intimate, perhaps using tone rows and lots of chromatic passages. And the fourth movement Currie describes as a "humdinger" where he mostly stays at the vibraphone.

Part of the fun was simply watching Currie's choreography - the various mallets he had positioned around his collection of probably a dozen different instruments, the sheet music that went flying as he finished with one instrument and ran over to another. The physicality and athleticism of what he was doing was obvious, as was the variety and range of the instruments at his disposal.

Interestingly, although he was the soloist, there were five other percussionists at the back of the orchestra, elevated on risers, who also had significant parts in the work. This army added to the textures and layers of rhythm Elfman builds throughout the piece. It was fascinating to hear how the percussion instruments could create such variety in pitch and melodic line, as well as in rhythm. And a virtuosic part for piano (and celeste!) contributes to the dominance of percussion melody and phrasing.

All of this percussion was joined by a string orchestra - only violins, violas, cellos and basses. But no winds or brass. In the concerto's third movement in particular, the violins carried the melody in a more relaxed, lyrical section. At this point, Currie stood to the side of his own array of instruments and just listened to the string sections carrying their themes. But most of the time, the strings served as background drivers of the tempo, in a way reserving the traditional symphonic construction where strings carry the melody and the percussion drives the piece's rhythmic movement.

It was completely delightful to experience the "crossover" of a Hollywood legend who can write first rate art music, and have an audience appreciate the composer for both his entertainment value and for his artistic value. Elfman is a true genius, and his percussion concerto shows off his incredible understanding of musical tools and tropes.

Photo courtesy of Utah Symphony.

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