Out From Behind
A timpanist who has put the kettledrum in the solo spotlight gets help from Philip Glass.
Sunday, June 3, 2001
By JOHN HENKEN
The phrase on percussion virtuoso Jonathan Haas' Web site about his "25-year quest to establish the timpani as a solo instrument" sounds like something out of the captain's log on "Star Trek." Certainly the idea could seem like science-fiction to the average concert-goer.
But Haas' quixotic quest has been astonishingly productive. The latest leg of the journey has seen the commissioning and completion of a Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra by Philip Glass. Haas brings the work to Pasadena for its West Coast premiere Saturday, with fellow timpanist Thomas Raney and the Pasadena Symphony in its season finale.
Timpani--a.k.a. kettledrums--have an ancient lineage. Originating in the Middle East, they entered Europe as cavalry instruments, a pair of drums slung across a horse, and became a favorite of royalty such as Henry VIII. They became ensconced in classical orchestras by the end of the 17th century, thanks in large measure to composer Jean-Baptiste Lully's use of the instrument in several operas.
And there they sat, in the back of the orchestra, pounding out tonic-dominant patterns, usually accompanied by trumpets. As the orchestra and its literature developed, so did the timpani, adding a complex tuning mechanism regulated by a foot pedal. By the beginning of the 20th century, large symphonic scores often called for two or three timpanists and a battery of the copper instruments to help handle the frequent pitch changes.
By mid-century there was a flurry of timpani concerto writing, but you will be forgiven for not knowing the works of Werner Thrichen, Robert Parris or Karl Heinz Kper. The world, it seems, was not quite ready for solo timpani.
Enter Jonathan Haas.
"I was in a high school program in Chicago, playing a drum set like everyone else, when I walked into a rehearsal of Sibelius' Symphony No. 1," Haas said by phone from his New York home. "It stopped me in my tracks. I was immediately hooked."
The attraction only intensified. The first goal of Haas' quest was a solo recital--Elliott Carter and others have written for unaccompanied timpani--and in 1979 he performed the first solo timpani program at Carnegie Recital Hall. Next up was chamber music, entered through works such as Stockhausen's "Schlagtrio" for piano and six timpani.
"Then, when I discovered that Duke Ellington had written a piece for jazz timpani and ensemble, I just had to form a jazz group," he says. "Ruth Ellington [the composer's sister] gave me the lead sheets for 'Tymperturbably Blue,' which we recorded on my CD 'Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing."'
And when Haas found out that Ginger Baker had played the opening bars of
the Cream classic "White Room" on timpani, well, he had to try rock. He
again formed his own band and also worked with Aerosmith.
"That was great fun," says Haas, ever enthusiastic. "Then, of course, I've got to have a concerto. That would be the next progression in bringing timpani to the forefront. I'm a huge fan of Glass, and Philip was very willing."
But the day Haas handed in his grant application to the Meet the Composer organization turned out to be the same day the Metropolitan Opera announced its largest commission ever, to fund a new Glass opera for the Columbus quincentennial in 1992. The concerto project then lay dormant for a decade.
"I woke up 10 years later with the same desire," Haas says. "I decided I was going to commission Glass, even if I had to mortgage my house."
That proved unnecessary. Haas put together a consortium of New York's American Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the Phoenix Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony and Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory Orchestra, and finally got his Meet the Composer grant. The world premiere took place in November, with the American Symphony under Leon Botstein.
The critics have been positive at every performance with the commissioning orchestras. "Getting melodic lines out of kettledrums is a pretty neat trick," wrote Tim Smith in the Baltimore Sun. "Glass carries it off quite effectively. Treating the timpani as more than rhythm-propellants prevents the concerto from slipping into a merely rowdy exercise and allows for considerable aural interest. More than that, it's just plain fun."
The 22-minute work is cast in the traditional three-movement concerto form, with a cadenza. It pairs Haas with the resident timpanist at each orchestra, both up front with seven drums apiece.
"This is unlike any Glass anybody has ever heard before. The harmonic structure is vintage Glass, but this piece moves along at a pace very unlike what one would expect," Haas says.
"It is a double concerto because I felt, first and foremost, that I would have more success with it if I had a buddy to play with. My most favorite orchestral timpani parts--in Nielsen, Mahler, 'Rite of Spring'--are all for two timpanists. This is spectacular visually, and with 14 drums compared to just seven, the melodic range is doubled. This is definitely a melody piece, which is what I wanted."
In Pasadena that buddy will be Thomas Raney, the orchestra's timpanist and a studio veteran. On some film jobs he has used as many as 11 drums, so he may be more prepared for this kind of assignment than other timpanists, but it is truly a virtuoso challenge, he says.
"It is a very hard piece. I'm working harder than I think I ever have before," Raney says. "I feel a little like the country club golf pro suddenly put on the tour. There is a substantial amount of what we call tap dancing, pushing the pedals to change the tuning.
"It's a very approachable piece, minimalistic but not as stark as some.
There are lots of rhythmic changes."
Haas understands. "This is strenuous music to play," he says. "There is a certain ballet to get around that many timpani. You've got to be in good shape--it is very physical."
The timpanist's lot is seldom an easy one, although there are compensations. Haas says that Toscanini regarded the timpanist as the orchestra's second conductor, and Raney says that his main teacher, William Kraft--a composer and former Los Angeles Philharmonic timpanist--calls the instrument the king of the orchestra.
"I got into percussion out of fear of art class in seventh grade," Raney recalls. "Music was the thing I always enjoyed, I played piano, and so to avoid art I took orchestra and ended up playing percussion. Not everybody likes timpani. I was good at it and was kind of pushed into it."
The pitch part of it, getting the instruments in tune and then changing the tuning during a piece, daunts many percussionists, he says. And a lot of instruments in schools are in such bad condition that it is hard to sound good on them.
Both Haas and Raney have had to build soundproof studios in order to practice, and both have large collections of instruments. Transportation is another problem. Raney stores many of his drums with a company that also delivers the required instruments to each gig. Haas has been sponsored by the Pearl drum company, providing cross-country trucking from a Nashville depot for the Dutch instruments he favors.
In Pasadena, Haas has in effect a third partner in music director Jorge Mester. After hearing Haas in an early New York recital, Mester invited him to join the Aspen Music Festival faculty, and Haas says that gave him the kind of serious credential he needed to underpin his burgeoning career. Mester was also a classmate of Glass at Juilliard, and he was involved with Haas and the composer in the final work on the solo part of the new concerto.
"Jorge Mester was pretty much responsible for launching my career as a musician," Haas says. "Jorge was also the first conductor outside the commissioning consortium who said, 'Yes, I'll book this.' He has been very helpful, and we're going to do it together again in Mexico at the end of June."
The piece seems to have legs. Other orchestras have scheduled it for next season, including the BBC Symphony in the U.K., and Haas expects to record it, although he hasn't signed a contract yet.
The success of this concerto has Haas dreaming of further commissions. He already has two diverse composers in mind--Yanni and David Bowie.
"I haven't had access to either yet," he says. "I base my desire on people whose music I am fond of, and who will know what to do with this very bizarre instrument."
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