Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra

Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra

By Jonathan Haas

Written for the concert The Anxiety of Influence: Music as Historical Legacy, performed on Nov 19, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Jonathan Haas approached me almost ten years ago with an invitation to write a Timpani Concerto for him. It seemed we were in agreement to begin our project when a series of operas and symphonic commissions led to a series of postponements. Now, almost ten years later, the work is finally completed–a three movement concerto with cadenza. It has also grown into a “double” concerto requiring two timpanists playing a total of nine timpani between them with half a dozen orchestras ready to perform it in its first year. Jonathan and their resident timpanist will be the dual soloists. I am delighted to be able to present the completed work and I commend Jonathan for his patience and undiminished enthusiasm.

Philip Glass

When I initially set out to commission a timpani concerto, I had no idea that it would take this long to develop and bring to fruition. After having been active as a solo timpani recitalist, founding my jazz timpani ensemble, and even making some head way (with my timps) into the world of rock music, I still had a strong desire to break through the concerto concept. I made up my mind to select two composers whose music I really admired and who I thought might be open to writing a concerto for timpani. I chose Frank Zappa and Philip Glass. To my sorrow, Frank passed away far too soon, but I was able to pursue the idea with Philip, with whom I had had several opportunities to work. I performed a piece for double bass and timpani entitled Prelude to an End Game, which I presented in a recital at the 92nd Street Y. It was a great success, and I believe it was this that began to spark Philip’s interest in my work as a solo timpanist. After many starts and stops, we were finally able to pull together a consortium of orchestras to organize the commission and perform the piece. Philip composed it, and today you will be the first audience to witness the culmination of this long journey.

This work is divided into three movements: Fast, Slower, and Very Fast, with a cadenza between the second and third movements. In the greatest tradition of cadenza-composing, this one comes with an alternative–even before the piece has been performed! The first was composed by Glass and the second written by xylophonist Ian Finkel. Any timpanists performing the Concerto may choose for themselves which one to perform.

Thematically this Concerto sounds to me purely American, heroic in nature and derivation. From the opening bars, one is quite sure that a new sound has been created by combining the incredibly large sonorities of the fourteen timpani with the full orchestra. As is the case with all of Glass’s work, the repeating figures actually move along at a pace. Keys are established but moved through at an astonishingly fast rate, which also makes for some very quick tuning changes in the timpani parts. The underlying rhythm is always motoric and grooving.

The second movement contains recognizable Glass harmonies and illusions to masses of people moving in slow and colorful lines. The movement of minor to major key centers allows the timpani to at one time sound very dark and foreboding, and in the major keys, very bright and hopeful. Ian Finkel, in his editing of the solo parts, has cleverly woven into the fabric of the piece obbligato passages in one timpani part, while using the other to sustain the melody with the various grouping of instruments from within the orchestra. The slow moment is brought to its conclusion with a beautiful reiteration of the theme subject, played only by the duo timpanists.

Today we have chosen to perform the Finkel cadenza, which takes its material from the theme of the first moment. Utilizing the strengths of the percussion section, the timpanists trade motives in a virtuosic and compelling manner.

The Finale is a mixed meter, dance-like from, shifting between 4/4 and 7/8 time signatures. This kind of shifting certainly comes from the many influences of world music that permeates Glass’s recent works. To me it sounds like a wild dervish that might accompany a shaman in some far off fantasized nation. The thematic material, alluding again to the first movement, has a wit about it which when heard coming from the timpani, is paradoxically charming and compelling at the same time. The closing moments of the piece emphasize the sheer athleticism and power of two timpanists double stroking in sixteenth notes as they reach a wonderful zenith and conclusion.

It has taken ten years from my initial idea for the commission to its premiere. When the Concerto’s title was finally arrived at, I told Philip it was a sort of double entendre, because this Concerto, a Fantasy in the compositional sense, is also certainly a fantasy come true for me. I did not realize this project alone, however. Judith Frankfurt is to be credited with making the orchestra consortium happen and successfully applying to Meet the Composer. No only did she open doors for this project that no one else could have opened, but we had great fun working together and sharing our success and some failures together. In addition to Judith’s great work, I received some valuable advice from Katherine Cahill. It was her suggestion to commission a double concerto so that the timpanist of each consortium member-orchestra would have an opportunity to solo with me if they wished. The final piece in this puzzle was Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra. Even before I received the grant from Meet the Composer, Maestro Botstein stepped up to the plate and guaranteed the concerto would be commissioned, regardless of the outcome of the grant. He believed in my commitment as a solo timpanist and shared in my vision that Philip Glass should write such a concerto. I would like to thank all these friends for making this concerto possible, as well as fellow timpanists David Fein, James Baker, and Ben Herman. I would like also to thank Ian Finkel for his invaluable advice and talent, and Svetoslav Stoyanov, with whom I am performing the concerto’s premiere today. The American Symphony Orchestra, the primary member of the consortium, also has my deepest thanks both for this performance, and for all the hard work its staff put into the effective management of the consortium.

I have found that Philip has a very specific idea of how the Concerto is to reach the audience. With his guidance and the support of the fine orchestras of the consortium, I feel the effect of this unique work will reach many people in many different ways.