Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Percussion magician Colin Currie leads a fitting tribute to the British composer Steve Martland.
The late Steve Martland offered Colin Currie a job in his band when the percussionist was still a music student – an expression of faith that showed Martland knew how to pick a good ‘un. Four other former band members also perform in this concert, part of the Metal Wood Skin percussion festival curated by Currie at the Southbank Centre.
Martland, who died suddenly last year aged 53, was an unforgettably charismatic man, who believed music should lead to transcendence – in effect becoming a substitute for ‘lost religious states’. He bridged musical cultures, with post-minimalism and injections of punk, funk and soul that challenged all the boundaries of what classical music should be.
He was held in high esteem by colleagues, who still find it hard to accept his loss. ’We almost expected Steve to walk in to rehearsals, waving his arms around and telling us where we were going wrong,’ says saxophonist Pete Whyman, who plays in Horses of Instruction.
The concert opens with Martland’s Starry Night, for marimba and string quartet, inspired by Van Gogh’s painting. There’s breathtaking virtuosity expected – and displayed – from the strings, as the rhythmic patterns shift at high tempo with insistent, repetitive themes that mesmerise the listener. Throughout, Colin Currie’s exuberant marimba echoes the African inspiration behind the piece, as it calls on the strings to respond. Leader Thomas Gould has a wonderfully mobile and expressive playing style, as well as wearing by far the shiniest shoes on stage.
Starry Night is followed by John Adams’ Chamber Symphony played by Aurora Orchestra, crisply conducted by Nicholas Collon. The piece was inspired in part by Schoenberg, but also by the manic soundtracks of the Warner Brothers’ cartoons enjoyed by his son. The first movement, Mongrel Airs, is a quirky repost to the critic who accused Adams of lacking breeding, while the second, Aria with Walking Bass, is centred by a steady Bach-like rhythm which faces increasing challenges from the other instruments. Finally, Roadrunner speaks for itself – as long as you’re familiar with that bird’s ability to speed away and fool every attempt at capture.
Aurora Orchestra’s super-cool brass section had some exceptional moments, as did Jane Mitchell’s ethereal piccolo and Henry Baldwin’s necessarily restrained but sharply punctuated percussion.
Currie’s own stunning and gymnastic virtuosity is displayed in Dave Maric’s Trilogy, which has Currie penned in by 22 instruments, together with a soundtrack of sampled and processed percussion which allows him the freedom to enjoy marimba solos and rock drumming in the the tumultuous finale, Tamboo.
Martland’s love for early music is reflected in the 1680 Fantasia Upon One Note by Henry Purcell, a composer who also preferred to keep his instruments in strict family groups.
The final piece, Steve Martland’s Horses of Instruction, offers 17 minutes of such power and intensity that the composer always had to leave the auditorium whenever it was played – his band politely letting him know that he really wasn’t helping by being there. Originally written for six players, it later expanded for Martland’s own band of 12. Here, it’s back to its original arrangement, with four original band members taking part: Pete Whyman on tenor saxophone, Tim Maple on electric guitar, Malcolm Moore on bass guitar, and the magnificently theatrical Dave Maric a powerhouse on piano.
Currie did his friend justice with this tribute – and it was also inspiring to see a troupe of primary school children filling the front three rows and applauding enthusiastically. This music challenges everyone, but its reward is to find yourself completely immersed.
On this occasion, ‘Bonkers!’ was one audience member’s response.
Metal Wood Skin continues to December, southbankcentre.co.uk