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Colin Currie says "Switch," Andrew Norman's new concerto, "behaves like no other concerto I know" and that's saying something. Currie, one of the world's leading percussion soloists, has more than 50 concertos in his repertoire, nearly half of them written expressly for him.
Currie will join music director Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony in the world premiere of "Switch" on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 6-7. It's one of three pieces the orchestra has commissioned from American composers for a recording project. The disc which also includes music by Augusta Read Thomas and Nico Muhly will drop next spring, just before Currie, Fischer and the Utah Symphony perform "Switch" in New York's Carnegie Hall.
When writing the concerto, Norman scrapped the traditional three-movement model in favor of five or six "stories," the composer explained in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "I think of them as musical stories, but they're all intercut. … It functions more like channels than movements, and we flip between them.
"Every instrument Colin plays acts like a switch that turns on the other instruments in the orchestra. It's cause and effect he'll hit a drum, and the oboe will turn on. He's constantly turning on and off various sections of the orchestra. It's almost as if he's changing channels on a remote."
There's visual drama built into the 25-minute piece: Currie will start at one end of the Abravanel Hall stage and gradually make his way to the other side as he plays an array of "fairly traditional" percussion instruments, Norman said. "The orchestra is constantly rewinding him. It's almost like a video game can Colin make it to the other side?"
Despite the "strong and specific concept," Currie noted, the music is "very volatile and mercurial. It pursues a number of very unexpected paths."
"Colin is such an amazing soloist, very athletic," Norman said. " 'Athletic' is a good word for this piece. He spends a lot of time running around." But it won't be a one-man show: "It's quite a substantial piece with lots and lots and lots of notes for everyone, not just Colin," the composer said. "In a lot of ways, it's a very crazy piece that's got a lot of little tiny things going on. But each tiny little thing serves a purpose in telling the story."
The idea for the percussion concerto was hatched in November 2011, when Currie and Norman happened to be in Salt Lake City at the same time. Currie was playing Christopher Rouse's "Alberich Saved" with the Utah Symphony; Norman had come to hear the NOVA Chamber Music Series give the American premiere of "The Companion Guide to Rome," his suite of miniatures for string trio that ended up being a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Chatting with Fischer and Utah Symphony artistic-planning VP Toby Tolokan, Currie suggested the orchestra commission something from Norman. Unbeknownst to the percussionist, the composer's publisher had just sent some scores to Fischer for consideration. The conductor quickly became a fan after hearing "The Companion Guide to Rome"; he said Norman's music seemed like a great fit for the innovative image the Utah Symphony wanted to project.
Fischer originally planned to premiere "Switch" in the spring of 2014, but Norman didn't feel the concerto was ready for prime time then.
"I'm very glad we waited," Fischer said in a phone interview from London, where he was conducting the London Philharmonic. "It's a fantastic piece." He added that while the piece is challenging for the musicians, it won't require heavy thinking from the audience.
The concerto is paired with Mahler's Symphony No. 5, part of Fischer's ongoing Mahler symphony cycle with the Utah Symphony. "As a composer, you're always freaking out about what you're paired with: 'Mahler 5? OK, I have to step up,'" Norman said.
Currie said "Switch" is "an exciting kaleidoscopic sound-world journey "that shows Norman at his best. "It's a thoroughly absorbing piece, very dramatic and very contemporary in feeling and extremely vivid and energetic."
The percussionist said he's delighted to be involved in the Utah Symphony's 75th-anniversary celebration. "It's an orchestra I've always loved," he said in a phone interview from his London home. "My subscription debut in the United States was with the Utah Symphony [in 1999]." Currie also attended his first NBA game in Salt Lake City: He saw Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz defeat Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets. Though not as cavernous as the newly renamed Vivint Smart Home Arena, the 2,800-seat Abravanel Hall "can be quite daunting," he said, "but I'm very fond of it. I love the colors, the wood and gold and green. For all its vast feeling, it seems to take sound very well."
Norman at NOVA
The Fry Street Quartet will be featured guests as the NOVA Chamber Music Series presents music of Andrew Norman and Johannes Brahms.
When • Sunday, Nov. 2, 3 p.m.
Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20; $18 for seniors; $5 for students; free with University of Utah student ID; novaslc.org
Learn more • Norman will chat about his music with series artistic director Jason Hardink onstage at 2:45 p.m.
'Switch' it up
The Utah Symphony presents the world premiere of Andrew Norman's "Switch." The performance will be recorded for a spring release. Also on the program: Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
With • Conductor Thierry Fischer and percussionist Colin Currie
When • Friday and Saturday, Nov. 6-7, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
Tickets • $18 to $84 ($5 more on concert day); utahsymphony.org
Vivace • The Utah Symphony's social-networking group will throw a party with Currie and other musicians at Caffe Molise after Saturday's performance; tickets to concert and party are $34 (or $15 for students by phone at 801-533-NOTE). Use promo code vivace when ordering.
Meet the composer
12:15 p.m. Monday • Composer Andrew Norman and Utah Symphony artistic-planning VP Toby Tololkan will talk about "Switch" with The Tribune's Jennifer Napier-Pearce and Catherine Reese Newton. Watch Monday's video chat at sltrib.com; join the discussion by sending questions and comments to #TribTalk on Twitter and Google+ or by texting 801-609-8059.
Different strokes at NOVA
Concertgoers can get a taste of composer Andrew Norman's style on Sunday, when the NOVA Chamber Music Series presents the composer's violin octet "Gran Turismo" and the string quartet "An Index of Peculiar Strokes."
It's part of a seasonlong collaboration between the series and the Utah Symphony, said NOVA artistic director Jason Hardink, whose day job is as the orchestra's principal keyboardist. Nico Muhly will be on hand Nov. 29, and composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher will visit Feb. 28; NOVA will present chamber music by each composer on the Sunday before the Utah Symphony plays one of his orchestral works. "We'll give those who are interested a kind of preview of the composer's language and style," said Hardink, who also will chat with the composers onstage 15 minutes before the NOVA concert.
Norman said "Gran Turismo," composed in 2004, was inspired by the car-racing video games that his roommates at the time played nonstop. It's also a nod to the Italian Baroque violin virtuosity of Vivaldi and his contemporaries. One of the eight violinists featured in the premiere was Kathryn Eberle, a classmate of Norman's at the University of Southern California who now is the Utah Symphony's associate concertmaster. Eberle will participate in Sunday's performance as well.
"An Index of Peculiar Strokes," written between 2011 and 2015, arose from Norman noodling around on his viola. "Each [movement] explores one particular bow stroke," he explained. For example, one of the movements, "Up," is played on a single upbow by each quartet member.
"For me, it looks really stressful to pace out your bowing for 60 seconds," said Hardink, who hastened to add that Norman's music doesn't come across as gimmickry. "All his music is so emotionally compelling and direct. The emotional content is always more important than the technique itself. … Andrew is one of the most imaginative and inspiring composers out there."
Hardink has paired Norman's works with two pieces written by Johannes Brahms when the great German composer was in his mid-20s, as Norman was when he wrote "Gran Turismo."
"I'm so excited for that moment when people see the energy that compositions written hundreds of years apart share," Hardink said.
Catherine Reese Newton