Symphony Preview: SLSO Principal Timpani Shannon Wood on playing above the staff and around the back
The big news about the St. Louis Symphony concerts this weekend (April 29-May 1) is the local premiere of the Timpani Concerto No. 2, "The Grand Encounter," written in 2005 by former Los Angeles Philharmonic Principal Timpani William Kraft. SLSO Principal Timpani Shannon Wood will be the soloist. We chatted briefly via email about the music and his relationship with his instrument of choice.
Chuck Lavazzi: I imagine when most people hear the words "timpani concerto" they probably wonder how much music you can really get out of a few kettledrums. But Kraft's concerto actually calls for a virtual timpani orchestra. Tell us about what people will actually see at Powell this weekend.
Shannon Wood: It's true that the very words "timpani concerto" summon a loud, bangy, 'drummy' sensibility to most, but Kraft steers away from cliché devices and rhythmic patterns that often become trite and he instead pushes the limits of range by incorporating nine tenor timpani suspended on a rack written for C#-A above staff (bass clef). On the floor he writes for six pedal drums ranging from a low C below staff to a high C above staff. The entire range of the concerto spans nearly three octaves. This collection of 15 drums allows for extensive lyrical writing resulting in a musical composition full of melodies and phrases. The sheer set up is enthralling and captivating. Kraft is a jazz lover and his use of 7th, 9, 11 and 13 chords is throughout the concerto. The Epilogue even has a section that is reminiscent of a jazz combo consisting of solo timpani, percussion, piano and harp. The Timpani are muted and played with bundles of rattan in place of traditional mallets, which to me depicts a jazz kit played by brushes on coated heads.
Chuck: How do you see Kraft's Second Concerto comparing with other works in the form that you've had experience with? You mentioned the lyricism and jazz; what do you see other differences or similarities?
Shannon: I see more melodic use of the Timpani compared with other works of the same form. The writing is more mature and less gimmicky. The melodic motifs are developed and built upon throughout the work. This concerto also stretches the limits of the performer. It's very athletic and the range of motion is vast. The work also demands the player to stand while pedaling, which is challenging.
Chuck: That suggests my next question: Aside from the aerobics, are there other aspects of the Kraft concerto makes that make it different from what a timpanist normally does with the orchestra? Are there things you've had to do to prepare for it that are a stretch for you?
Shannon: Yes, there are several aspects to this concerto that call upon the player to do things outside of the traditional boundaries of orchestral repertoire; the first being reading above the staff. It's rare a Timpanist has written notes higher than a C above the staff. This work has notes written as high as an A above staff. The range of motion is extreme, calling upon the player to rotate in a complete 360 at times and reaching far beyond the normal playing sphere radius. It also calls upon the player to perform glissandos across six pedal drums continuously without pause or interruption with one foot while standing on the other.
A few things I've had to do in preparation of this concerto that have been a stretch for me is expanding my range of motion and memorizing placement / location of timpani in places I usually don't have drums as well as reading above the staff which is unusual for me. I normally sit while playing, however it would be impossible to sit because of the high degree of athleticism involved. Standing on one foot while pedaling a glissando across six drums is very difficult as well.
Chuck: One final question: I've always wondered what motivates musicians to choose particular instruments. I remember being fascinated with the euphonium, for example, when they first introduced us to the school band back in fifth grade and I went on to play it and other low brass right through high school. What made you choose percussion in general in the timpani in particular? What's the source of the appeal for you?
Shannon: I gravitated towards drums at a very early age. My parents bought me a toy drum set when I was around 5 and the match was made. At 7, I was turning my mother's show boxes upside down, drawing circles in the center imitating black dots reminiscent of REMO black dot drum heads and I'd use chop sticks to play on the makeshift drums. At age 9, my father got me drum set lessons as a birthday present. In fourth grade I started a rock band which consisted of my brother on bass, best friend on guitar, and me on drums. We played together through college writing mainly our own material, which was prog-rock (YES, RUSH, King Crimson). I journeyed through the public school system music program playing percussion and upon graduation decided to major in music in percussion performance. I continued on with grad school and after a few stops in several other places landed here. Although I've always had a love for percussion and drum set, I started to focus solely on Timpani after grad school in private studies and that's when I knew I wanted to play Timpani exclusively.
The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the Orchestra in two different programs April 29-May 1. With violin soloist Celeste Golden Boyer, he presents a Whitaker Foundation "Music You Know" concert on Friday, April 29, at 8 p.m. featuring works by Ponchielli and Dukas as well as a new work by Stefan Freund. On Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., he conducts the local premier of William Kraft's Timpani Concerto No. 2 with soloist Shannon Wood, as well as Schubert's monumental Symphony No. 9, "The Great."