A Fantasy Come True – Jonathan Haas in conversation

Written by: Chris Caspell

Speak of the orchestra and certain images spring to mind – the strings who take up the large majority of the floor space; trumpets, flutes, even bassoons, each with endless melodic ability, but what of percussion? The “kitchen”, as it is affectionately referred to, sits at the back of the orchestra and is usually called to make loud noises at certain, very precise, moments in time. Get it wrong and everybody knows it – there are no secrets when you play percussion.

Today, things will be different when percussionist Jonathan Haas takes centre-stage in the UK premiere of Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra. I spoke to Haas recently from his New York home about his forthcoming European tour and asked him whether the tragic events of September 11 had made him uneasy about making the journey. “I am excited beyond belief. As an American, I am more determined than ever before to come over and be a part of Philip Glass’s music – the idea of flying doesn’t scare me at all.”

Haas performed the world premiere of Glass’s Concerto Fantasy just over a year ago in Avery Fischer Hall, New York. The work had a ten-year gestation period with a number of setbacks along the way that might easily have deterred someone without the extraordinary commitment that Haas has for his art. “Ten years ago I first came into contact with Philip Glass, in a piece that he had written for timpani and double bass called Prelude to End Game, which was written as incidental music to the play. There was just a single line in the ‘New York Times’ about the play with a mention that Philip Glass had written the music. So I contacted him, went over to his house and reworked the piece so that instead of there being two timpani and a double bass playing all the pitches I switched it around so that it had eight timpani playing the bass part and the bass … well it had to try and play the timpani part! I brought Philip to a studio in New York and played it to him and he loved it. After that, I asked him to write me a concerto. He agreed, so then I had to find the money. I tried to get a grant from a ‘not for profit’ organisation in New York called ‘Meet the Composer’ and on the very day that I handed in the grant application, which must have weighed about forty pounds in terms of papers, tax forms, recordings and scores, Philip received his commission from the Metropolitan Opera for The Voyage – and I was out of luck! There was no way that, after he received a quarter of a million dollars for the opera that my concerto was going to get a look in. Ten years passed and I could not put away the dream of having him write the concerto. In fact, over the ten years, people that knew me said ‘what ever happened to the concerto that you wanted from Philip Glass?’ In the intervening period I had some prosperity in my own career and I felt that I could approach him again and, if I couldn’t get a grant, I could pay him some money myself. So I called him up and said ‘I want to take a second try at this’, and he said ‘that’s fine, but I won’t allow you to pay for it yourself; you can raise the money but not use your own’. He meant this in a really friendly way though. So instead of doing it myself this time I hired a professional grant writer [Judith Frankfurt]. I thought, ‘I’m a timpanist by trade, so I’ll get somebody who raises money by trade’, and it all came together. It was a ten-year wait, but it was the best wait that I have ever had.”

Haas has played Concerto Fantasy with a number of American orchestras over the past year. It is a work that he has grown very fond of, strongly disputing some of the negative criticism that has called the piece “loud, monotonous, repetitive and boring”. I asked him how he felt about playing Concerto Fantasy for the first time with a British orchestra and co-soloist, John Chimes, with Marin Alsop conducting. “What’s really fantastic is Marin Alsop and I were at Juilliard together back in the seventies, so we’re like old colleagues. I haven’t seen her for many years, but she is like an old friend. John Chimes, who also has an international reputation, is going to become a ‘new friend’. The Concerto Fantasy has always been exciting for me, because it was written for me to play with the regular timpanist from the orchestra that I am visiting. John will be the sixth ‘new’ timpanist that I will not only ‘get to know’ but be able to play with. For me it is the most exciting project that I have done to date. I have been bringing timpani to the forefront of the concert hall for about twenty-two years and I am still probably one of the only guys to be doing it.”

There seems to be some confusion over the number of timpani that are required for Concerto Fantasy; some say twelve, others fourteen, so could the commissioning artist answer this question definitively? No! “The number of timpani required varies depending upon the timpanist. I know that, to play my half of the solo part, I need seven timpani. Most places I go the other timpanist has utilised seven as well, so we’re calling the official number fourteen; but Mr Chimes may use one less or he may even add one, that’s up to him. There’s nothing specified in the score – just as long as you can play the part.”

The last question that I asked Jonathan concerns the cadenza between the second and third movements – there are two available, one written by the composer, and another by long-time Haas collaborator Ian Finkel (pronounced ‘Iron’). “Ian has been writing for my jazz ensemble and rock and roll band for some time, and so I asked Philip if Ian could look at the timpani parts. Philip said ‘sure, let’s collaborate a bit here’, and so Ian’s contribution was to write a cadenza. Ian knows that the cadenza is in the style that I like to play, and he has been very careful and diligent to write it so that stylistically it was Glass. He’s a genius at arranging and that cadenza has really stuck. Then Philip wrote a cadenza that, believe it or not, hasn’t been performed yet. Philip’s is much more complicated and much more densely written. I’ve promised him that we’ll find an occasion to try it out, but as a tribute to Ian, that he took the time to help out with the piece, I play his cadenza. Besides, it is so much fun to play.”

Haas performs Concerto Fantasy as part of a series of concerts celebrating the sixty-four-year-old composer. As a musician, Haas appears tireless. He plays in a rock band and a jazz band called ‘Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing’. He owns and plays over 400 percussion instruments. He is building the world’s largest timpani and was told by Mrs Duke Ellington to “have a ball” with a piece written for timpani by her late husband and never played since the 1920s. Over the coming months classicalsource.com will be following this extraordinary musician in his quest to put the timpani at the front of the orchestra instead of the back.

Coming up – reviews of his CDs and, of course, a review of Concerto Fantasy. For Jonathan Haas this is one compositional fantasy that has become “a fantasy come true.”

  • Jonathan Haas and John Chimes played Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists as part of the BBCSO’s Philip Glass Composer Portrait on 6 December. Click here to read the review
  • Barbican Box Office: 020 7638 8891

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