Percussionist Jonathan Haas lives out a ‘Fantasy’ with 14 timpani
By Julie Riggott 10/11/2007
He’s a drummer who’s performed with Frank Zappa, Aerosmith and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. When he’s not playing jazz with Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing or heavy metal with Clozshave, his two bands, he’s onstage with orchestras around the world.
His name is Jonathan Haas, and he is considered the world’s foremost solo timpanist. You can hear this triple-threat drummer Saturday night as part of the Pasadena Symphony’s opening night concert.
While drummers usually hang out in the back, Haas brings them front and center with Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists & Orchestra, a work he commissioned from famed minimalist composer Philip Glass. And here’s one reason why it might be called “Fantasy”: There will be 14 timpani onstage for him and fellow percussionist John Evans to cover.
“It’s a rumble in the jungle,” Haas said on the phone from New York. “It’s a lot of timpani playing at one time, but what makes it unique is that the timpani, instead of just playing rhythmic figures, are playing melodic figures along with the orchestra.”
As you might imagine, it’s also something of an athletic feat. “Some people have asked if we needed roller skates to play it because there’s so much movement,” Haas explained. “Each one of us has to play seven timpani so to get from one to the other, sometimes the stretches are two and a half, maybe three feet, and for an instrumentalist that’s a lot of space to occupy. We’re moving very fast and there’s a lot of interaction between the two timpanists and the orchestra that’s fabulous to watch.”
Haas came up with the idea for the Concerto Fantasy with Catherine Cahill, former general manager of the New York Philharmonic. He originally wanted Frank Zappa as composer. He worked closely with his rock ‘n’ roll hero on a concert at Avery Fisher Hall, but Zappa was ill with cancer and died in 1993.
It took several years after Haas asked Glass to work with him before he got the funding. Haas finally premiered the concerto in 2000 with the American Symphony Orchestra, where he is principal percussionist (he’s also principal timpanist of the Aspen Chamber Orchestra), and first performed it with the Pasadena Symphony in 2001.
Music Director Jorge Mester said the response from the audience was phenomenal. “They went nuts,” he said. “People keep asking about it, saying, ‘Man, that was one of the great experiences.’”
Haas has performed the concerto with 28 different orchestras around the world but said it feels like a celebration to come back for round two in Pasadena. And he calls Mester the “No. 1 champion” of the Concerto Fantasy: He has played it more than any other conductor and was the first outside of the initial consortium involved in the commission of the piece to present it onstage.
But Mester is more than just conductor of the concerto. According to Haas, he named it at the last collaboration session with Glass, who studied conducting with Mester at Juilliard. Mester humbly remembered simply giving them a suggestion. “I was there to marvel at the creative process,” he said.
Mester has known Haas since the 1980s when, as music director, he brought the percussionist to the Aspen Music Festival and School as a faculty artist. When Mester conducted the Concerto Fantasy with his Naples Philharmonic Orchestra (he’s also music director of a third orchestra, the Louisville Orchestra) with Haas and principal timpanist John Evans, the crowd loved it.
“We really knocked the socks off the concerto that time,” Haas said. “The Naples audience, which I’m told is very conservative and doesn’t necessarily go for a lot of the contemporary stuff — they went crazy. They were on their feet.
“So it was a ‘no-brainer,’ as they would say,” Haas added, “for Jorge and myself to invite John to join us” for the Pasadena concert.
Raising the bar
Haas started off with rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, playing the drums in his basement as a teen. “My heart is in rock ‘n’ roll. In my teenage years, I was in a Doors cover band,” he said.
In high school, he discovered the timpani and played through all the Beethoven, Sibelius and Brahms symphonies. From there he embarked on a rich career.
His mission to put the timpani in the spotlight as a solo instrument began when he gave the first solo timpani recital at Carnegie Hall in 1980. To this day, it’s the only one ever to be performed there.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Haas said. But he received support from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation after that concert. “It gave me a tremendous amount of encouragement from then on to just follow my heart, follow the thing I wanted to do, and it never failed me.”
He has commissioned and premiered 25 works for timpani from other contemporary composers. He also recorded some lesser known concertos for timpani and orchestra from the 18th century, and his “Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing” CD features a Duke Ellington composition for jazz timpani, “Tymperturbably Blue,” played on a set of 10 kettledrums with a full jazz ensemble.
He has also ensured the future of solo timpani through teaching, directing programs and introducing new opportunities in percussion studies at New York University, Juilliard and Aspen Music Festival and School.
It would be impossible to list all the drum-related projects Haas is involved in, but suffice it to say they include everything from consulting with instrument manufacturers and running his own Gemini Music Productions to building the world’s largest timpani (70 inches in diameter) and amassing a collection from around the world.
Haas explained, “I certainly have set the bar very high for myself.”