christopher rouse

Unlike the closing work in the Oregon Symphony’s October 22-4 concerts, Richard Strauss’s 1898 tone poem Ein HeldenlebenAndrew Norman’s 2015 percussion concerto, Switch is not explicitly a hero’s journey. But, invoking videogames as it does, one can’t help but sense a quest theme for these concerts. After all, the great videogame protagonists were all on some sort of heroic quest or another. Mario and Luigi, Link and Zelda, Samus Aran, Lara Croft — to name only a few — go through most of the phases outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his legendary Hero With a Thousand FacesI suppose we could compare the start menu with the call to adventure. Norman’s concerto follows the same basic pattern, sending the percussionist on a journey across the stage through several distinct phases of challenges and obstacles.

Soloist Colin Currie, for whom the concerto was composed, described his experience playing the piece as feeling like the pinball in an arcade game, ricocheting around the stage between three different arrays of percussion instruments. In the composer’s words: “The soloist, dropped into this complex contraction of causes and effects like the unwitting protagonist of a videogame, must figure out the rules of this universe on the fly, all while trying to avoid the rewind-inducing missteps that prevent progress from one side of the stage to the other.”

Percussionist Colin Currie performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Percussionist Colin Currie performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

The orchestra started alone, sounding the call to adventure, and after a few minutes the percussionist rushed in from stage left to play quick figures across the first, gigantic percussion array, delivering complex syncopated runs on a set of huge almglocken (tuned cowbells), congas and bongos, concert toms, temple blocks, and tin cans before climaxing on the snare drum and cymbals. Currie handled his entrance marvelously, dashing in breathlessly over waves of whistles and cheers. A jolly impish grin on his face, he hopped through the opening gestures with nimble flair, checking in furtively with his music and conductor Carlos Kalmar while scurrying from one section of the array to another.

Composer Andrew Norman

Composer Andrew Norman wrote ‘Switch.’

Once the piece got rolling, the title’s meaning became clear. Certain gestures in the percussion parts — woodblock strokes and cymbal chokes for Currie, slapsticks and log drums for the orchestral percussionists stationed around the orchestra — switched on and off the different layers of music (what Norman calls “channels”) throughout the orchestra. The effect was quite striking, if I may be excused the pun. Screeching violins and howling trombones would start up a wailing cacophony quite out of nowhere, and then stop just as suddenly, exactly as if a switch were being thrown or a button being pressed.

This back-and-forth progressed towards a climax, at which point Currie was suddenly sent back to the beginning, tumbling back down to the far end of the percussion array to restart the opening gestures on the almglocken, congas, and tin cans. Each time he returned, he did a little better—and moved through the passages faster and faster. Every successful completion of the opening passages would bring him to new musical material. It was just like “dying” in a videogame and having to start all over, rushing through familiar early levels to get to the next area.

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