January 20, 2010

A Talk with Charles Ross About Jeff Tyzik’s New Timpani Concerto

When Jeff Tyzik’s new Timpani Concerto debuts in a couple of weeks, our extraordinary Principal Timpanist Charles Ross will show off the surprising color and variety of the timpani, an instrument that isn’t usually front and center.

This imaginative and exciting world premiere incorporates elements of jazz—including call-and-response and African and Cuban rhythms—within the traditional three-movement structure of a concerto.

We talked with Charles to find out more about the new work.

How did this new concerto come about?

Well for many years, I had a desire to contact the great American composer John Williams about writing a concerto for timpani. He's known mostly for his film scores like Star Wars, Superman, Shindler’s List, Catch Me if You Can, and so many others. I've played his pieces and arrangements many times and what has always appealed to me is how he writes for my particular instrument. He's extremely conscious of not just the percussive nature of the timpani, but also its vast color potential, as well as its harmonic and melodic possibilities.

But when I arrived in Rochester and began playing Jeff Tyzik's pieces, I immediately was impressed by his compositional style and more specifically, how perfect his timpani-writing is. He captures exactly the qualities I described above. So, when I was approached about doing a concerto, it really was a "no brainer" as to whose piece I'd want to play.

In his program notes, Jeff talks about the choreography of playing the timpani, since each drum can only be set to one note. What goes into preparing for a piece like this?

He and I discussed a great deal what we'd like to experience in a full-length concerto for timpani and decided we wanted to include as many "voices" of the instrument as we could. And its potential for melody was at the top of the list. So we decided on using as many drums as possible to allow for these melodies to be played with fluidity, and that does mean a certain "choreography" is required due to the physical placement of the instruments.

There is a pedal mechanism on the timpani that does allow for the changing of pitches, and you can alter these as you are playing. However, there is a limit to how much of a change, and how many of the drums you can physically get to for these pitch alterations. So, needless to say, much of my prep time was spent playing a kind of "timpani twister game" just getting around this pretty large set-up. I think my chiropractor has done fairly well by me these last few months.

Tell us more about the piece; for instance, do you have any favorite sections?

I can't say I have a favorite section because he's thrown so much diversity into it, and that's what I love most about the piece. And the reason I was attracted to the timpani in the first place as a young drummer, was for its great diversity. I think, though, that the most surprising and innovative part of the piece is the second movement where Jeff has written the timpani as a bass line of a jazz blues. It's pretty cool. I hope everyone enjoys the piece as much as I have putting it all together.

Hear Jeff’s new work on Thursday, January 28 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, January 30 at 8:00 pm, with Christopher Seaman conducting. The program also includes music by Debussy and Brahms. Click here for more information about the concert.

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