Archive for the ‘Previews’ category

Scaling the Timpanist’s Heights: Jauvon Gilliam in the NSO’s New Moves Festival

May 8, 2014

Jauvon  Gilliam is the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal timpani. Michael Lodico at Ionarts calls him “superb,” and his boss Christoph Eschenbach describes his technique as “supreme.” I agree, although I’m biased, because I’m also his cousin. And since I now tend to be more of a rooter and less of a critic when I go to NSO shows, I haven’t been writing much about them lately. For Jauvon’s upcoming solo timpani concerto, though, I had to take advantage of my connection and find out more. The results are below.

Each of the three programs in the National Symphony Orchestra’s “New Moves” festival, running from yesterday to May 17, features a new dance set to the strains of a vibrant American work. But when Jauvon Gilliam, the NSO’s principal timpani, picks up his sticks to perform James Oliverio’s Timpani Concerto No. 1, he’ll be performing a dance of his own, albeit one hidden from public view by the eight timpani that’ll be surrounding him.

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Jauvon will not be surrounded by quite this many timpani, but it’ll be a lot. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Not everyone who attends orchestral concerts knows that the timpani is not a fixed-pitch instrument; drummers tune them through the use of a foot pedal. So to play the right notes, you have to have both your hands and your feet in the right spot. With the typical orchestral complement of four timpani, this is challenging enough; as Gilliam says, “it’s like a choreographed dance. You can overshoot it, you can undershoot it, it’s just like if you do a pirouette.” To really master the instrument, “you almost have to have four different brains or have your brain in four different compartments.”

Twice as many timpani involves more than twice as much difficulty: “Where my feet go on the floor, where my feet go on this drum, which one goes on which one — I have to write all of it down so I can practice it, because the idea is to play it perfect the first time. So I’m actually practicing those type of choreographed moves just as much as I practice the notes.”

The result is physically taxing — Gilliam says he works up a sweat just in practice — but he’s determined to hide his efforts from the crowd. In composing the concerto, Gilliam says, “James uses the visual aspect of playing the outer drums and shifting your body weight, and the challenge is to make it look graceful. To make it look easy. Which is really hard, because my body doesn’t bend that way.”

Gilliam knows the composer’s intentions because he worked with Oliverio to prepare the piece. It’s well known among students of the timpani, and in fact Gilliam’s teacher Paul Yanich premiered the work 24 years to the day before Gilliam will play it with the NSO. So when the NSO reached out to Gilliam to ask about performing an American concerto for the “New Moves” festival, the timpanist got in touch with the composer, who gave him valuable ideas about the concerto but understood that Gilliam would put his own stamp on the piece as well. “He’s a cool cat,” Gilliam says.

Playing eight timpani not only makes for a challenge but also allows Gilliam to explore the melodic potential of the instrument. “With four drums, you could only play two notes of melody, two notes of harmony, or one note of harmony, three notes of melody. It’s not very many,” he says. “With eight timpani, it allows me to have five notes of melody and basically a two-note ostinato in my right hand, in some of the more challenging parts.” And indeed, the timpanist is the melodic protagonist in this concerto, leading dialogues with orchestral instruments and even a cadenza towards the end.

It’s an unusual role for an instrument that normally sits in the back and makes everything sound fuller and more forceful, but Gilliam doesn’t mind the change. “My job is to support people. I really enjoy that, that’s what I love about my job,” he says, but performing a solo is a “different way of doing things, and it allows me to expand my talent. It allows me to be a better musician.”

The concerto is also, he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever played” — a challenge worthy of the title “The Olympian,” and a summit only scalable for a man who’s sure on his feet.

If you also want to have the experience of hearing Jauvon talk about this concerto, you can listen here. And he even wrote a blog entry about the concerto, which I recommend.

I also recommend the other concerts in the New Moves series. One has Sue Heineman, the NSO’s principal bassoon, playing a concerto, and you know I like her playing based on this, this, and this. And the other is Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams’ violin concerto, which I liked a ton when she did it with the Balmer Symphony. Looks like a strong week ahead for the NSO.

Dear Summer: Washington Early Music Festival and National Orchestral Institute

June 4, 2012

Just wanted to write a quick note about the onrushing plethora of interesting concerts in D.C. Anne Midgette had a fuller breakdown in Sunday’s Post, but my upcoming highlights are the Washington Early Music Festival and the National Orchestral Institute and Festival.

The biannual WEMF presents mostly local groups specializing in Baroque and before, though this year as in the past some outstanding out-of-towners are sprinkled in. Everything in the following paragraph from the WEMF’s “About” page is correct:

The Festival demographics include a younger and more diverse audience than is often seen at many music events. The audiences include students, families, and young couples as well as the more mature audience support base typical of early music events. It also draws a highly educated and sophisticated group of business and government people. Our audiences are enthusiastic. We have an established and loyal audience base. It is also common for us to see new people attending one concert, becoming excited about the Festival program, and returning to attend several more concerts.

For example, I will be attempting to cajole my fiancee into attending three WEMF concerts this month — the Les Inegales performance on June 9, “Fasch and Friends” exploring the doctrine of affects on June 19, and Hesperus scoring “The Hunchback” on June 30. Typically the performers talk about why they like the music they’re playing and play like they’re really enjoying it, and the churches in which they play run small enough to allow them to connect with the audience. At WEMF shows, it’s not uncommon for me to hear something I’ve never heard before and love it immediately, which is one of the great pleasures of concertgoing.

The only thing stopping me from attending more WEMF shows, besides my employment, is the NOI. For a quarter of a century the NOI has been bringing student musicians to College Park to teach them the ways of the orchestral trade, and oh yeah to also put on some inspiring concerts, played with all the passionate conviction that has not yet been stripped from them by post-graduation disappointment and consequent cynicism. I felt strongly enough about NOI’s awesomeness to write a feature about it a while back, and everything there remains true. I’m going to hear Leonard Slatkin conduct the youths on June 16, and of course I’ll be there for this year’s edition of the “New Lights” chamber music concert, since it so dazzled me in 2010.

The NOI is full of young people. This is last year’s NOI, but it’s always the same. Photo by Stan Barouth.

Those aren’t all the concerts I am attending in June — I am so there for the Philip Glass world premiere that the Baltimore Symphony is presenting as part of its War of 1812 bicentennial, assuming I can figure out how to fit it in with the Nats game I may be attending earlier that day. If kind weather and a free evening present themselves simultaneously, our various military bands always offer an attractive pops program and scenic prospect. I may also add another group or two if I can. (I am supposedly planning a wedding now, too.) But I wanted to call the greater Internet’s attention to WEMF and NOI, two stalwarts of early summer and great places to plop you butt down in air conditioning and hear some personal, joyful, inspired music-making.


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