But in the hands of percussionist Colin Currie and composer Sally Beamish, a concerto can feel like a swing dance, a tango, a medieval-style saltarello.
This all makes sense in the framework of "Dance Variations," a new Beamish work that will have its U.S. premiere on Feb. 29 at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The concerto features seven sections: a set of dance variations, each inspired by one of the age-old seven deadly sins.
Currie, a Scottish musician and champion of new percussion music, just gave the piece its world premiere on Feb. 16 with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. That orchestra jointly commissioned "Dance Variations" with two other orchestras and Stanford Lively Arts, so it makes sense that the work comes here next, with Currie set to perform it with the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra.
Beamish wrote the piece mostly for marimba. Other instruments include various kinds of drums, a tin of coins and a snare drum used to represent gunfire. Bottle-chimes represent empty wine bottles in the "Gluttony" section, which is written in the style of a medieval estampie dance. "Sloth" is paired with the measured, processional pavan dance, while "Lechery" just plain swings.
"The composer decided to switch between Baroque dances and some of the more recent influences in the art of dance, and a swing section has made it into the concerto, lo and behold," Currie said in a phone interview. The "Lechery" section also has blues flavors, he added. "It's kind of a louche and smoky number. We like to shake it up."
Currie has worked with many composers, including Steve Reich and Elliott Carter. For "Dance Variations," he was unusually involved with the composing process, talking with Beamish over several years.
Beamish said in a press release, "The piece is the result of many happy conversations with Colin, and draws on the breadth of his imagination, and on the sheer virtuosity of his performance, which has always reminded me of a dancer in action."
Currie called his musical conversations with Beamish "rigorous." They kept going throughout much of the composing process, unlike in other situations, he added good-humoredly. "I (usually) speak with the composer sometimes at length about instruments and techniques, and then they usually vanish and write the piece. ... Sometimes they have these rather utopian fast tempos."
That must be really fast, because Currie is known for his energetic style. Reviewers have described him as "athletic," "a one-man orchestra" and "turbo-charged."
He himself calls premiering a new work "always a thrill, always a bit of a rush."
Currie has been quoted in the past as saying that quality music is lacking for the solo percussionist, and that he'd like to reach a wider audience. Last week, he said that there have been great strides in new music.
"Each five years you can look back and see significant additions to the repertoire. I'm absolutely thrilled. ... I have premiered 16 concertos so far," he said. The key thing now, he added, is to keep performing the music. "It's important to make sure that this new wave gets established."
Four solo works, three of them recent, are also on the program for the Feb. 29 performance at Stanford. They are: Elliott Carter's "Figment No. 5 for Marimba" (2009); Per Nørgård's "Towards Completion: Fire over Water from I Ching" for solo percussion (1982); Toshio Hosokawa's "Reminiscence" for marimba (2002); and Dave Maric's "Trilogy" for solo percussion and CD (2000).
"The whole event combines into a very interesting snapshot of where percussion is at the moment," Currie said, predicting that the evening will be "exuberant."
"This is not complex new music at all. The pieces are easily absorbed," he added.
As usual, Currie has a full schedule of other commitments coming up. In April, he's scheduled to give the world-premiere performance of a percussion concerto by the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In June, the world premiere is Elliott Carter's "Two Controversies and a Conversation" for solo piano, solo percussion and chamber orchestra, with the New York Philharmonic. And so on.
Somehow Currie finds the time to learn the music. A recent day at home in London was "quite a standard day," with seven hours of practice and several interviews afterward. While on tour, Currie can't practice as much. But there are other diversions.
"I'm very into the theater and film, but I also hear a lot of concerts," he said. "Also, the foodie side of things. I do enjoy finding the spots when I'm away."
What: Scottish percussionist Colin Currie performs "Dance Variations," a new concerto by Sally Beamish.
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 29.
Cost: $44-$50 for adults and $10 for Stanford students, with other discounts available for groups, non-Stanford students and people under 18.
Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.