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The Juilliard Journal

Timpani Concerto Breaks New Ground
November 2000


When Jonathan Haas decided to commission a timpani concerto, he had no idea that it would take ten years to develop and bring to fruition.  But then, Jonathan Haas is a patient man.  Since 1979 he has been pursuing a somewhat unusual career-that of a solo timpanist.  His first Juilliard recital took place at a time when the percussion department had to beg the administration to allow its students to use Paul Hall for recitals.  Times have changed, of course-and Haas is proud to have been part of the movement to bring solo percussion performance into a more important and balanced role, on a level with other instruments.  "My teachers, Saul Goodman and Buster Bailey, were very encouraging, but not quite sure where my efforts would lead me," he recalls.  "As a solo timpanist, one realizes very early on that few people know the timpani can function as a solo instrument ... and does so very well."

    Convincing people came along with the territory.  Haas applied to the Martha Baird-Rockefeller Foundation for funding for his Carnegie Recital Hall concert in 1980-the hall's first timpani recital-and was turned down, because the foundation only funded recitals on "musical instruments"!  Undaunted, he covered the costs out of his own pocket... and his artistry sufficiently impressed the curious administrator from the Rockefeller Foundation who attended to approach Haas after the concert and hand him a belated check to cover his expenses.

    After having giving recitals as a solo timpanist, founding a jazz timpani ensemble called johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing, and even making some headway into the world of rock music, Haas still knew there was one mountain to scale in his quest to establish the position of the timpani; the traditional classical concerto.  He decided to approach two composers-Frank Zappa and Philip Glass-whose music he admired, and whom he though might be open to writing a concerto for "timps."  Zappa, alas, passed away far too soon... but Glass was intrigued.  (Haas had performed a piece of his for double bass and timpani titled "Prelude to an End Game, on a recital at the 92nd Street Y.)

    Haas wryly recalls his first efforts to procure public funding for the project-his first large orchestral commission-as "an important learning process."  He was determined to take advantage of Meet the Composer's consortium commissioning program, through which a number of orchestras divide the expense of commissioning a work and also guarantee a certain number of performances.  After two months on the telephone (and a $1,200 phone bill), Haas succeeded in getting a consortium together, and finally hand-delivered his grant proposal-a 25-pound opus-to Meet the Composer.  That same day, Philip Glass received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera for The Voyage.  "I knew I was finished," says Haas.

    It took him ten years to get back on track with the project-and this time, he sought the help of Judith Frankfurt, a specialist in grant-writing.  "Not only did she open doors that no one else could have opened, but we had great fun working together, sharing our success... and some failures," Haas notes.  He also consulted Catherine Cahill, former general manager of the New York Philharmonic; it was her suggestion to make the work a double concerto, so that the timpanist of each consortium member orchestra would also have an opportunity to solo with Haas.  (The two timpani soloists will play on a total of 12 instruments between them.)

    The final piece in the puzzle was Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra-who believed in the concerto enough to guarantee it would be commissioned, regardless of the outcome of the grant application.  It is Botstein who will conduct the ASO in the world premiere of the work in Avery Fisher Hall on November 19.  Joining Jonathan Haas as the second timpani soloist for this performance will be Svetaslov Stoyanov, a young wunderkind attending the Peabody Conservatory (who will also perform the concerto with Haas at Peabody.)  Sixteen performances are presently scheduled; lined up to perform the groundbreaking work this season are the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, the Peabody Conservatory Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.  Many of those performances will bring Haas into collaboration with fellow timpanists who are significant in his life.  He will perform in St. Louis with his former teacher and principal mentor, Richard Holmes, and in Milwaukee with one of his most outstanding former students, Dean Borgesani (recently appointed principal timpanist of the Milwaukee Symphony).

    Glass, no stranger to exploring new musical language, welcomed the opportunity to expand percussion writing in this piece to the limits of Haas' remarkable ability.  "It's not just about what I could do, but what he can do."  The work is in three movements-Fast, Slower, and Very Fast-with a cadenza between the second and third movements.  In the great tradition of classical concertos, the soloist is even offered a choice of two cadenzas; one composed by Glass and one by percussionist Ian Finkel (who wrote nearly all the cadenzas for Haas's recording of 18th-century timpani concertos with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, as well as the timpani charts for Haas's jazz and rock bands.

    "Thematically, this Concerto sounds to me purely American," says Haas, "heroic in nature and derivation.  From the opening bars, one is quire sure that a new sound has been created by combining the incredible sonorities of a dozen timpani with the full orchestra."  Repeating figures-a hallmark of Glass's work-move the work along at a pace; the underlying rhythm is always "motoric and grooving," according to Haas.  "Keys are established but moved through at an astonishingly fast rate, which makes for some very quick tuning changes in the timpani parts."

    "Some people come out of the closet.  I came out of the basement," Haas jokes, referring to where most drummers get started.  When Philip Glass finally arrived at a title for the new work-Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra-Haas pointed out the double entendre.  "In addition to being a fantasy in the compositional sense, it is also certainly a fantasy come true for me."

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