And so, maestro Daniel Spalding said, “let there be drums,” and yes, there will indeed be drums, at least 14 of them, when the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic launches its second season on Saturday, October 24, at the Trenton War Memorial Patriots Theater.
Music director Spalding, who was, at one time, a professional timpanist, has chosen to kick off the orchestra’s 2015-’16 season-opening concert with the “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra” by one of contemporary classical music’s most famous composers, Philip Glass.
Special guest “co-soloist” will be renowned percussionist and pedagogue Jonathan Haas, who reached out to Glass to commission the work and personally spent a decade bringing the concerto to the stage. Haas, who has been called “the Paganini of the timpani,” says the October 24 concert will be his 70th performance of the piece, which he has played with orchestras from across the United States and around the world.
He will team up with his old friend and fellow virtuoso, the orchestra’s own William Trigg, who is a well-known soloist and educator in his own right, having been featured with the New York City Ballet, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Philip Glass Ensemble, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Manhattan Marimba Quartet, and Steve Reich & Musicians, among many other groups. Trigg is also conductor and music director for the College of New Jersey’s Percussion Ensemble.
“Symphony Number 5” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky will be performed in the second half of the concert.
The “Concerto” is a tour de force for two percussionists performing on 14 timpani, and is unusual in a few ways. For one thing, the timpani — or kettle drums — will take the stage in front of the orchestra, coming out from behind their usual placement at the rear of the ensemble. Listeners seated toward the front of the concert hall may be able to feel as well as hear the pulse of the piece.
“That’s on purpose,” says Haas, speaking from his home in New York City. “Philip Glass and I talked a lot about the positioning, and we wanted the sound to be up front instead of in the back, so the timpani are not blending with the orchestra, but presenting themselves as a soloistic instrument.”
The two timpanists will be frequently using the pedals on the kettle drums to tune them, which is a real workout. Haas says it looks a little like the musicians are riding a bicycle because they’re jumping back and forth from leg to leg.
“You need to use the pedals because there’s a lot of chromaticism in the piece,” Haas explains. “Even with having a lot of timpani (onstage), you’re tuning the notes, but that’s the purpose, having the timpani play the melody and not just fixed pitches like in a Beethoven symphony. It’s quite spectacular, and you can even feel it, especially if you’re close to the stage.”
“I think the person with the best seat in the house is the conductor, wedged between the two sets of timpani,” he says. “Although you’d have to ask the conductors I’ve worked with — it’s a lot of volume.”
For several decades, Haas has been passionate about expanding the timpani repertoire, bringing this and other percussion instruments to the forefront, as well as new composers and their works.
“There was very little repertoire (for the timpani) in the 1960s and 1970s, so I’ve had to literally commission as often as I could, with as many different composers as I could,” Haas says. “Today I think I’ve commissioned about 30 pieces, many solo and chamber music pieces, but always with the focus being on the timpani.”
“I first met Philip Glass after hearing his ‘Prelude for Timpani and Double Bass,’ which I became fascinated with,” he continues. “Since Philip was a member of the local musicians union, I found his number in the union book, called him up, talked to him, and he generously invited me to come over. He gave me the music (for the ‘Prelude’) saying, ‘I didn’t think anybody knew about it,’ but I knew, and I was intrigued.”
“I played the ‘Prelude’ at the 92nd Street Y in New York in a recital, and in fact, I’ll be recording it this fall,” Haas says. “After that conversation with Philip, I had a nice relationship with him, and that’s when I came up with the idea for a concerto. It took me 10 years to find the funding for it, but I found it.”
He says Glass was surprised and impressed that there have been so many performances of the concerto, and by timpanists from around the world.
“It’s an exciting project that nobody had any idea would be so successful,” Haas says.
The Glencoe, Illinois, native reflects that he has been experimenting on drums, percussion, and just about anything he could find, since childhood. His father, Howard Haas, was CEO of the Sealy Mattress Company, and his mother, Carolyn, was a busy homemaker. Both are still living.
“I’ve been told I was always in the basement banging on everything I could find, and at one point my sister threatened to send me away,” Haas says. “So I got a rubber practice pad, which I thought was pretty mundane. Then I graduated to a drum set, which I often wonder whether my parents regretted.”
“I’ve been playing drums in rock bands since I was too young to drive,” Haas says, explaining that he chose to play the instrument because drummers were popular with the girls — and officially excused from having to dance at sock hops. “My mom and me would put the drum set in the trunk of a Delta ’88, and she would drive me and the drums around to all my rehearsals and concerts.”
Haas attended the renowned New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, which provided him with a thorough education in orchestral music.
He became especially interested in the timpani when he heard “White Room” by 1960s British “supergroup” Cream; drummer Ginger Baker added a brief timpani part to the introduction, giving the classic rock song a singular sound.
After high school Haas pursued a degree in liberal arts from Washington University in St. Louis, graduating in 1976. Though he was not majoring in music, it was at Washington where he became focused on a career in the field.
“I was very influenced by the percussionists in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, who became my teachers, and then I got very serious,” Haas says. “After undergrad I decided to study with Saul Goodman (at Juilliard), and, in fact, that was the only place I auditioned. I was fortunate that I was accepted in 1976, and I’ve been in New York City ever since.” (He earned his master’s degree from the prestigious school in 1979.)
While at Juilliard a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came his way when Haas auditioned — and was accepted — to perform with the orchestra that accompanied progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer on its tour to support the 1977 album “Works Volume One.”
This double album featured Keith Emerson’s original concerto for piano and orchestra, a prog-rock arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” as well as an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “D minor invention” and an excerpt from Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite;” (the latter two arrangements showcased drummer/percussionist Carl Palmer).
“This was during my time at Juilliard, and I had to get permission to miss school,” Haas says. “I remember Saul asking, ‘How much are they going to pay you?’ Well, it was $500 a week, a lot of money at the time; Saul agreed and he said, ‘That’s good money, you should go do it.’”
“With ELP, Carl Palmer had timpani as part of his drum set, but he didn’t know how to tune them,” Haas continues. “I was the principal percussionist in the orchestra, so I’d help tune the timpani before concerts. This was such an opportunity, playing places like Madison Square Garden, and Soldier’s Field in Chicago, having 50,000 people in the audience, going crazy.”
Unfortunately, this massive ELP touring project was just too ambitious, and the orchestra had to be dismissed. (Full disclosure: this writer saw ELP during the “Works Volume One” tour, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, June, 1977, but without the orchestra.)
“At one point, ELP sent us home with pay,” Haas says. “So yes, it was ill-fated, but we had been on the road for three months and we had so much fun. Truth be told, that was enough of that: the life of the rock star seems glamorous, but it’s really hard work.”
Haas has championed and unearthed compositions for the timpani in genres beyond classical music. With the help of Duke Ellington’s sister, Ruth, he uncovered and performed “Tymperturbably Blue” by Ellington. For a number of years now, he has played and recorded timpani-centric jazz tunes with his group Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing.
He hasn’t left rock behind either. In addition to ELP, Haas has played and recorded with Aerosmith and Black Sabbath and has explored heavy metal with his own group Clozshave. He also played on the Grammy Award-winning recording “Zappa’s Universe,” a 1993 tribute to Frank Zappa.
A teacher, Haas is director of NYU’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions’ Percussion Studies Department, chair of the Juilliard Pre-College Percussion Department, and a faculty artist at the Aspen Music Festival and School. He is the conductor and artistic director of the percussion ensemble programs at all three institutions and is the creator of one of the most innovative percussion intensives, hosting an NYU Broadway Percussion Seminar/Summit each June.
Haas’ love for percussion shows in his extraordinary collection of drums and other musical accoutrements. It’s an eclectic group of some 400 instruments, many rarely seen outside their countries of origin. Among the array is the world’s tallest percussion instrument: a 300-year-old nine-foot-tall drum from the Philippines.
Haas is also known for building the world’s largest timpani, which is nearly four feet tall, and almost six feet wide. He discovered the kettle in an Aspen cow pasture, and learned that it had originally been used to manufacture Swiss cheese at the turn of the 20th century. Remarkably, it matched the exact size specifications of a timpani.
He debuted a prototype of this instrument at the 2003 Aspen Music Festival, and it made its official premiere at the Percussive Arts Society’s annual convention later that year.
“All these drums live in NYU, in my teaching studio,” Haas says. “I get to play and look at them every day.”
New Jersey Capital Philharmonic, Trenton War Memorial Patriots Theater, 1 Memorial Drive. Saturday, October 24, 7:30 p.m. $30 to $65. 609-218-5011 or www.capitalphilharmonic.org. About NJCP: 609-558-2292. Jonathan Haas: www.aboutjonathanhaas.com