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The Paganini of Timpanists

Michael Raphael

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Jonathan Haas
(Robert Caplin)
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I am Jonathan Hass, and I'm a solo timpanist.

Timpani first caught my ear when I heard Ginger Baker on "White Room" playing that great little timpani solo in the background. That was the first time I heard melody played on timpani.

Bartok certainly is one of my favorites. The Bartok sonata for two pianos and two percussionists. If I could play that every night, I'd be a happy timpanist.

What I'm drawn to, in percussion in general, but timpani specifically, I love low frequencies. When I would I go to rock concerts, or sometimes, I'd be in them myself, it was that pounding bass in the bass drum. They're visceral. You can feel them. They shake a room, they shake your body. It's a real feel good frequency. And that's why I enjoy playing the timpani, because we're way down at the bottom.

Well I'd been very fortunate in that I, it took me ten years, but I prevailed. And the American composer Philip Glass wrote a timpani concerto for me. In fact it's a double timpani concerto. It's for two timpanists, in front of the orchestra. And that is really the piece that I've been travelling the world, bringing the timpani into the forefront.

Well, when you're a solo timpanist, the first question you're saying is, who cares? And the second one is, gee I hope somebody does. Or I hope somebody likes this music.

I have a very good friend of mine, Mitch Estrin, who's a fabulous clarinet player, and he told me that when I play timpani up in the front of the orchestra, he likens it, you take your kids to the zoo, and you go to the monkey house, and there's an elephant standing in the monkey house. And everybody would say, is that where that elephant belongs. And one could argue that the timpani in front of the orchestra is very much like the elephant in the monkey house. It takes everybody getting a little used to.

It's actually a melodic instrument. That we're playing melodies on a drum. And the way that we do that, is there's a foot pedal that tightens the head or releases the tension on the head, and that changes the pitch. What they're really listening to, is a melody instrument, not just a percussive, timbral instrument.

It wasn't my intention to be a maverick, but I can honestly say I've had a little something to do with bringing the timpani into the forefront. And it's all in the name of just making good music and having a lot of fun doing it.


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From the January 31 broadcast

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