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 Timpanist puts his work
where it can shine
— out in front
November 2002


The musician travels the world to play an instrument that’s not real portable and, likely, is a pain to unpack.

Good thing Jonathan Haas doesn’t travel with his timpani. The instruments are provided when he arrives.

Just what are timpani? They’re also called kettledrums.

‘‘It’s the same animal,’’ Haas said. ‘‘I like it when people call them kettledrums. Timpani is sort of a technical term.’’

Haas, principal timpanist of the New York Chamber Orchestra, has played timpani with 20 orchestras — more than any other timpanist. He’s performing Thursday with the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway and then coming to Columbus for a gig Saturday at the Percussive Arts Society’s annual convention.

Hailed as the foremost solo timpanist in the world, he has worked with a diverse array of musicians, from Emanuel Ax to Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Aerosmith; Michael Bolton; Black Sabbath; and Frank Zappa.

While all symphony orchestras have timpani, the low-profile mystique may lie in that ‘‘It’s a strange instrument,’’ Haas, 48, said.

‘‘You tune it with your feet, using pedals; and for a young student, it’s very daunting to become proficient with it.’’

Great athleticism is required to play the instruments, which each weigh about 160 pounds.

‘‘Audiences just love watching. I’ve been told there’s a (balletlike) spirit about it,’’ Haas said.

He claims to be the only jazz timpanist in the world, with his band Johnny H and the Prisoners of Swing, and ‘‘I can’t tell you how much fun it is to play in a setting like that.’’

Audiences expect something like a Beethoven symphony. Instead they hear the low bass of ‘‘hot timpani’’ in a most unlikely place — in front of a full jazz ensemble. Integrating the timpani sound into jazz was, for Haas, compelling and difficult.

Haas has been on a 25-year quest to bring the timpani, typically relegated to the back of the orchestral stage, front and center as a solo instrument.

“I’ve really had to fight for the right to do this.’’ When he wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation in 1979 to apply for funding for a recital, he was told the timpani weren’t considered worthy of such funding.

For two years, he has performed Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, the first double timpani concerto ever written. Haas performs it with the timpanist from the home orchestra. He will record the piece, which requires 14 timpani, next year.

On Saturday, he and other timpanists will perform The Elliot Carter Timpani Cartel, incorporating eight seminal solos written by Carter, now in his 90s, whose voice will introduce each piece via recorded anecdotes.

Then Haas will return home to Thornwood, N.Y., where, in his percussion museum of a basement, he has 400 instruments. A 300-year-old, 9-foot drum resides in his living room.

He plans to add to his collection of 30 timpani by building the biggest in the world. The diameter of a large timpano is usually 32 inches, but Haas’ supersized creation will be nearly 6 feet wide. He’s collaborating on it in Saginaw, Mich., with metal sculpture artists and a sailor who is supplying a sail to use as the drum head.

“Three people could take a Jacuzzi in it,’’ he said. “That is my Mount Everest of timpani projects.’’

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