Multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons has enlisted Michael Kieran Harvey to perform his Concerto for Piano and Toy Band.

In a concert where the musicials will really “play” with their instruments, Adam Simmons’ quirky Concerto for Piano and Toy Band will kick off the composer-performer’s new concert series, The Usefulness of Art. Pianist Michael Kieran Harvey will join Simmons’ Creative Music Ensemble at Melbourne’s Fortyfivedownstairs in a concert that will feature bubbles, bursting balloons and rubber chickens.

Simmons’ concerto was originally written for the Adam Simmons Toy Band, who last performed at the Festival of Toy Music in Brisbane several years ago, but the Creative Music Ensemble has a similar set up. “It’s kind of like a small swing band,” Simmons tells me. “Saxophones, trumpet, trombone, bass and drums – but with a bunch of rubber chickens, balloons, spinning tops and party poppers.”

Adam Simmons

Simmons’ plays an impressive array of wind instruments and uses extended techniques to draw unconventional sounds from them. “Toys are just another sound source,” he says. “Music boxes have a certain quality, rubber chickens squeak – but they also bring a playfulness and a sense of nostalgia. The toys become both musical instruments and theatrical visual props. I will definitely admit there’s a comical element at times, but it helps bring people into music they might not otherwise listen to, in a comfortable, welcoming way – it helps enhance their experience.”

For Simmons, part of the appeal is “the juxtaposition of a serious classical musician with a dirty, ragged bunch of jazzers.” Michael Kieran Harvey – who has worked with Simmons before – is well-known as an interpreter of contemporary music. “Michael has a lot of energy in his performance,” Simmons says.

“I liked the idea of combining someone of his skill and personality with a rambunctious jazz band playing rubber chickens, because I knew he would respond to it. There is that sense where you’re not quite sure what Michael’s going to do. He’s a very fiery player and he really brings a piece of music alive. It’s not just playing a bunch of notes – he’s living it. There’s a lovely sense of tension and adventure in his playing.”

The Concerto for Piano and Toy Band is just the beginning of Simmons performance series The Usefulness of Art, which takes its name from a quote by Rodin: “As for me, I call useful anything that gives us happiness.” Simmons discovered the quote as a teenager and it has guided his thinking ever since – his 2013 suite, which will feature in the second concert in the series in an expanded 20-piece version of the Creative Music Ensemble – bears the same name. “It just gave me a framework for understanding the importance of being an artist,” he says. “Both in myself – in having a sense of purpose about creating art – and art’s purpose in society.”

“I’m increasingly evangelical about the value of art to society, but I don’t want to stand up and yell at people,” he says. “I learnt many years ago that it’s very hard to change people by just telling them they’re doing the wrong thing. I’d rather try and show a positive way forward, if I can.”

The series will be recorded for intended digital release and as a box set of CDs. And although not all the concerts will feature rubber chickens, a sense of fun is important to the composer-performer. “If I’m not enjoying what I’m doing than I’m not creating very good art.”

Michael Kieren Harvey and the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble perform Simmons’ Concerto for Piano and Toy Band at Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne March 2 – 5