In the preamble to her new percussion concerto, composer Sally Beamish writes the following dedication: "The piece is a 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."

A dancer in action – the phrase is exactly right. Percussionist Colin Currie plays in a way that is simultaneously elegant and muscular: poised, expressive and immensely robust. The combination makes him a unique and very sellable artist. Not yet two decades into a career that began when he was a teenager, Currie tours relentlessly to appear with the world's best orchestras.

"I'm paid to sit on a plane," he says. "Concerts are for free." He's had 17 concertos written for him by the greatest living classical composers. This year alone he premieres seven. There's a brand of mallets named after him and a personal scholarship fund in the US. In percussion terms, Colin Currie is a global superstar.

In person, he is a blend of that success and something much less flashy. He lives in south-east London, in a quiet neighbourhood out past New Cross called Hither Green. A few small shops and a florist-café cluster around the train station. Currie's flat sits at the crossroads of suburban red-brick terraces. "Ten years ago it was cheap to buy here," he explains as he dunks tea bags into Dennis the Menace mugs. He shows me his practise room: an attic crammed with xylophones, marimbas and rows of colourful wool-headed mallets. "This is why I chose the flat. It's up here that all the work gets done."

We sit in the living room. Apart from a wall of CDs, there's little sign he spends much time here.

He's good looking and sharply dressed, off to a party at the Brazilian Embassy that evening. His accent, drifting between Edinburgh and somewhere mid-Atlantic, hints at how often he's abroad. Perhaps most surprising for such a theatrical performer is how earnestly he talks about what he does, using turns of phrase that are formal and a little quaint: without any irony he describes learning a new work as "a voyage of discovery". "I'm very proud of the works I have premiered," he says. "There's not a bad apple in that cart, and long may that continue."

Currie grew up in Colinton, Edinburgh, the son of a statistician and a linguist. As a boy he'd take himself off to the Music Library on George IV Bridge and root around for interesting-looking scores. By 13 he was coming home with Stockhausen, Webern and Xenakis. "My parents accepted I was an eccentric youngster and supported me when I'd get excited about Boulez or Penderecki. I listened to Radio 3 constantly. One night a piece by Elliott Carter came on, and I remember being irrationally thrilled. Now that I'm working with Carter [he premieres a new percussion work, Conversations, this year] I often think back to that moment."

Currie signed up for the junior school at the (then) RSAMD, and there met Pamela Dow, long-time RSNO percussionist and the "inspirational" teacher whom he credits with his making, as well as that of Evelyn Glennie. It was also around that time that he joined the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.

"NYOS was my first taste of playing in a really good orchestra, and I was utterly, overwhelmingly intoxicated. The orchestra has always been my thing. So many colours, so much potential for expression."

When he moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music, it was as an orchestral percussionist. When he graduated, he spent several years freelancing in orchestral percussion sections. But another strand was developing. Currie entered the (now defunct) Shell-LSO Competition when he was 15, putting himself forward in an under-18s category but winning the whole thing.

"I think at that point there was a bit of frisson that I might just have something -" At 21 he was snapped up by the artist agency Intermusica. "I received a fax: 'Marin Alsop has been talking about you. Come in for a chat.' I was a blank slate, but they saw that I could become interesting.

"I think the timing was right. It was time to have another percussion soloist on the scene." The other, of course, was Glennie. Currie says that when he started out, people voiced concerns: "'Just because Evelyn's done it doesn't mean you'll be able to.' And they were right. There's elements of trail-blazing to what we've both done. Evelyn created one mode of being a percussion soloist, I created another. We're both natural, both are ourselves, and our careers reflect the kind of musicians we are. We're hardly ever in the same place at the same time, but whenever we meet, it's a great moment. I think we're mutually tickled by the fact we're both Scots -"

So what is the Currie mode of being a percussion soloist? He's played drums for Todd Rundgren and Spiritualised. he's formed pop bands and jammed on jazz vibes and salsa timbales. "I love that stuff," he says, "but I can't do everything. It would be like an athlete who's world champion at shot-put, javelin and long jump. It's impossible."

At the heart of his musicianship is a deep-rooted passion for contemporary classical music. Already he has generated swathes of new repertoire: Carter, Andriessen, Reich, Rautavaara, Aho and Nyman, to name a few. He talks about his concertos, his composers.

"None of my composers would treat me as a gimmick if they know my work," he replies when I ask whether percussion has an image of fun and games rather than seriousness. "I'm not denying it's an entertaining art form. But I'm something of a purist, and I shy away from sound effects. I'm after purity of musical content – not things that remind one of a circus or an ice cream van." Do composers struggle with lyricism and soft textures when they're writing for percussion? "They're often conscious of that potential issue. But I go for composers who have a lyrical voice. The pieces I play – compared with other percussion literature – are more about poeticism than crash-bang-wallop."

Currie describes Dance Variations, the new Beamish concerto commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as "delicate, occasionally very exuberant and quite charming". The idea for its title sprang from his own interest in dance form – that composers as remote as Bach and Schoenberg can employ identical forms to vastly different effect. "I love ballet and my favourite composer is Stravinsky. I mentioned this to Sally, and she was keen to explore the notion of percussion being balletic. I'm not about to get up on points or anything, but her music is graceful and will require a delicate touch. It isn't a rave. It's a piece of subtle ballet."

Currie is aware that his incessant commissioning is creating a legacy, shaping the way that percussion is written for and played. He teaches, too – "as much I can. For years now I've been Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy" – not a line most 35-year-olds can trot out. "And there's a great retreat seminar in New Hampshire called Chosen Vale. I can't take part because it's always at a busy time of year, so I've started a scholarship for a percussion student to attend. I've had so many opportunities myself, and I think today's young players are amazing – I want to play alongside them in years to come. This wee bit of philanthropy is my way of saying 'good luck' and investing in the future of percussion."

Like an athlete who's in his prime but worried he won't go on forever, Currie says he's started to wonder how much longer he'll get. "I need to be extremely fit to perform, and touring takes a toll. Maybe there will come a point when I can't do the solo stuff any more. Maybe that will be my chance to be a dodgy old drummer in a rock band -"

Maybe, but that is wildly premature. Currie has more energy, integrity and gumption than almost any musician I've met. Count on plenty more top-flight premieres before any hope of dodgy rock drumming.

Colin Currie gives the UK premiere of Sally Beamish's Dance Variations with the SCO at City Halls, Glasgow, on March 16 and the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, on March 17.