Danny Elfman, known the world over for his scores to over 115 movies, including numerous collaborations with directors Tim Burton, Gus van Sant and Sam Raimi, not to mention the classic theme for The Simpsons, adds two major orchestral works to his recorded catalog. The dynamic American conductor JoAnn Falletta directs the forces of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in this new studio recording.

The Percussion Concerto was written for the Scottish virtuoso Colin Currie and was co-commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave the world premiere at London’s Royal Festival Hall in May 2022, and Soka University of America. The concerto is Elfman’s third work in the form, following the Violin Concerto, Eleven Eleven, of 2017 (also recorded by Sony Classical) and the Cello Concerto of 2022. ‘The audience were captivated by Colin Currie’s every move as he performed the piece. Darting across the stage between instruments, Currie is a true showman,’ wrote Amy Melling (Abundant Art) of the US premiere. 

Elfman says: “I met Colin by chance when I was in London working on a score, and he came into the studio. We started talking, and I started getting an idea in my head, just a kernel. And literally while I was talking to him I got excited about the idea of what I was calling the triangle. And he says, “What do you mean?” I go, “I’m imagining you in front of the orchestra with all these instruments and two small percussion ensembles to your right and to your left, always echoing and playing off of what you’re doing and creating this kind of sonic percussion triangle.” And he’s like, “Well, that sounds interesting.” And then once I get it in my head, I’m hopeless. It’s like I’m stuck!”

Triangle forms the first section of this four-movement work for strings and percussion. The second is a tribute to a composer Elfman reveres, Dmitri Shostakovich, and uses the DSCH (D, E flat, C, B) signature motif that the composer wove into many of his works, and which Elfman sneaks into most of his concert pieces too. (He actually has DSCH tattooed on his shoulders!) The third is the work’s most harmonically adventurous. He says: “Inevitably it’s the third movement where I feel, ‘Oh, I’ve written a lot of really crazy stuff in the first and second movements, I really need to pull myself in here and find myself with my third movement before ending with a bang! Which it does!’

I knew Colin was a devotee of Steve Reich and many contemporary percussion composers that I knew from my youth. I was really thinking about keeping him moving, moving, moving all the time and interlocking sensibilities. You get kind of caught up in the soloist’s personality and the challenge is writing for that personality.”

Wunderkammer, a concerto for orchestra, was written for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which toured the piece in the UK before playing it at the BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall in August 2022. ‘Wunderkammer lived up to its name, as one door after another opened to reveal a striking nugget of loosely-connected musical material,’ wrote Boyd Tonkin (The Arts Desk) of the Proms performance.

Elfman says: “It was written for the kids, just to have some fun with them, and give them something that’s fun for them to play. It was very clear to me when I saw them play in London that they were very capable and that it made no sense to me to try to write down for them, try to write simply. It was actually quite the opposite. I was thinking, “Write something that’s very difficult and very challenging that they could get their teeth into because they’re quite capable.” And I could see in some of the really difficult sections how it wouldn’t intimidate them, it would just perk them up. I love seeing that with musicians.

‘I have the hardest time coming up with titles, but the idea came into my head of a Wunderkammer, a wonder room just filled with little, lovely, strange, odd treasures. I said, “Oh, I like that image.” I even have an 18th-century book called Wunderkammer, an oddity, from a collection of an Austrian duke or aristocrat. A Wunderkammer can be fun, or scary, intriguing or instructive, but never normal or boring! And that’s just what I was hoping to bring to the players of the NYOGB’.” 

Talking of his concert music, Elfman commented: “I have a friend who’s a novelist, and I guess it’s the same thing for him. It’s starting those first words on the piece of paper that can be brutally difficult, but there is a point where the momentum of the piece starts to feel like it’s carrying me along, and that is my joy in writing, those moments. It’s because I’ve had those moments writing for film here and there that it attracted me to the idea of what if I got an idea and I didn’t have to stop? I can keep developing it.”

The album is completed with a short choral piece in French, ‘Are you lost?’, from Elfman’s song-cycle Trio. Scored for women’s voices, piano, strings and various percussion

instruments, the work was actually premiered at the recording sessions in Liverpool, and give a glimpse at a sonic world that we don’t usually associate with the composer: gentle, reflective and delicate.

The Percussion Concerto and Wunderkammer are released by Sony Classical on May 17, 2024. New single: Percussion Concerto I. Triangle is out today: listen here