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.
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.
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.