Concerto No. 1 for Timpani and Orchestra

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            If there is a “grand old man” of American music, then it is surely William Kraft. Born in 1923, he was still active after a very long life as performer, composer, teacher, conductor, and pundit.  Along the way, he has performed with and for a most impressive list of the world’s great musicians, as well as garnering dozens of awards and commissions from the highest echelons of musical art.  His compositions for imaginative combinations of instruments, especially those featuring percussion, set a high bar for adventuresome works in an advanced style.

            But, he certainly took a while to find his way to such lofty heights.  Born in Chicago to Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, he grew up in Southern California.  His major interest as a boy was manifestly not the piano lessons that his mother made him take—he more or less loathed them, and was much more interested in playing baseball.  But as a teenager fate intervened when his sister introduced him to the music of Benny Goodman, and he was hooked.  He calls it his “first great epiphany.”  He went to hear Count Basie, and entranced by Basie’s great drummer, Jo Jones, he asked his father for a drum set.  He was soon on his way, playing in little combos around the area.  World War II came, and after a brief aspiration to be a P-38 pilot, he ended up in an Army Air Forces band.   As the war ended, the band found itself in Europe, where the dedicated jazzer encountered the music of the significant classical composers of the time.  He was gobsmacked by first hearing Ravel’s Daphnes and Chloe, and that he characterized as another “epiphany.”  He thereupon switched gears in his musical life completely.

            After the war he ended up in New York City, where he studied percussion privately, and composition with luminaries at Columbia University.  Along the way he performed in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and in frequent freelance gigs in the city.  Moving to the West Coast in 1955, he played in the Los Angles Philharmonic for the next twenty-five years—eighteen as principal timpanist.  That was just the beginning of it, though.  Through the years, he served as assistant conductor of that group, began an active life as composer (including composer-residence for the orchestra), organized various performing groups for percussion and new music, and wrote and played for the film studios in important movie scores.  If you remember the dramatic, hammering percussion parts in Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, North by Northwest, then you’ve heard William Kraft perform.

            In other activities in the Los Angeles area, he worked with important composers such as Lou Harrison, Edgard Varèse, Ginastera, Ernst Krenek, and the illustrious Igor Stravinsky.  For the latter, Kraft was Stravinsky’s choice to serve as the principal percussionist and timpanist for all the recordings of his music that the composer conducted or supervised.

            Percussion instruments are perhaps the oldest form of musical instruments, going back beyond the limits of recorded history.  In Western music drums are important in mediæval times, including the small copper bowls that are antecedents of today’s timpani—nakers.   Along with strings and woodwinds, timpani—with their close musical allies, trumpets—had an important and respected rôle in instrumental ensembles right through the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods of musical history.  While the history of the orchestra in the 19th century focused upon the expansion of the woodwind and brass sections, it was ultimately in the 20th century that the percussion section came into its own.  Composers exploited the expanding sonic universe of what seems a limitless array of percussion instruments and their unique colors.  A typical catalogue of contemporary percussion instruments is astounding in the number and variety of choices.

            Kraft’s concerto (premièred in 1984) for timpani is illustrative of this happy situation. Scored not only for the typical large symphony orchestra, in addition to the requisite timpani, one will also hear six drums of various sizes, four suspended cymbals, crotales, six temple blocks, crash cymbals, snare drum, field drum, xylophone, triangle, tam-tam, chimes, bass drum, vibraphone and lathe on leather.  Whew!  In addition to all of this, Kraft expands the colors of the timpani with innovative techniques such as playing with gloves, a variety of mallets, unusual “sticking” and the distinctive glissandos available only on modern pedal timpani.

            The solo timpanist begins alone softly, in a cadenza that builds in intensity, using unusual gloves with mallet heads on them.  The orchestral gradually joins, in a vigorous, driving exchange between its various sections and the drums.  The soloist constantly alternates various ways of striking the timpani, including with bare hands.  From time to time the temple blocks jump in with a significant statement.   The frenzy continues in all instruments to a climax—and then a sudden cessation of it all.  The movement ends, marked by a soft timpani glissando and a gentle chord in the mallet percussion.

            Lush, dissonant string clouds with occasional portamentos that seem to mimic the glissandos of the timpani carry the soloist through the meditative second movement.  Enigmatic gestures from both the soloist and the orchestral accompaniment suggest somewhat virile and assertive allusions to Béla Bartók’s “night music.”

            The third movement is comprised of a series of contrasting, dramatic episodes, including a delicate little “tinkling” interlude.  The hammering, powerful timpani constantly asserts itself, leaving no doubt of its redoubtable force.  Along the way, the soloist is joined by his colleagues in the “battery,” lending a variety of percussion colors.

A series of daunting outbursts from the timpani, with equally powerful rejoinders from the orchestra lead to a thumping conclusion, with no doubt who is the winner—the perspiration-soaked timpanist, hands down.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan