Posted on Sat, Jun. 11, 2005

Music review
Futuristic timpani concerto complements Beethoven's Ninth

Mercury News

We're often told that symphonic music has no future, that symphony halls are mausoleums for dead composers. But Thursday night's San Francisco Symphony program at Davies Symphony Hall -- the first of seven sold-out, season-ending performances -- was an exercise in radicalism.

It began with an engrossing -- and futuristic -- new concerto for timpani by William Kraft: Its soloist, David Herbert, was barely visible inside a supersonic ``cockpit'' of 15 gleaming kettle drums, encircling him in double-deckered rows, as if the repressed imaginings of every percussionist in the world suddenly had sprung to life.

The program ended with Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, which turned the music world upside down two centuries ago and sounded amazingly new and clear Thursday, a joyful geyser of energy and beauty in a performance led by Michael Tilson Thomas.

It was a good idea to arrive early: At 7:20 p.m., with the hall nearly empty, Herbert was on stage, adjusting and fine-tuning his drums and practicing a few flourishes. It was like being at batting practice at the ballpark; Herbert was getting the lay of the land, along with a couple of other percussionists and a lone trumpeter from the orchestra.

At 8:05, the official proceedings began. Herbert, in shirtsleeves (no constraining tuxedo for this all-out performance) was settled amid his drums for the world premiere of Kraft's ``XIII/The Grand Encounter,'' Timpani Concerto No. 2:

Bam!!! Bam!!! Bam!!!

Herbert pummeled the drums, joining the orchestra in a heavy metal outburst. Then, quickly, the bombast melted into quiet super-complexities of rhythm and mysterioso melody, with gauzy textures and squeezed-down chords: Gil Evans and the impressionists meet modern classical astringency.

Weaving through it all was Herbert. He wheeled this way and that, rolling across his instruments, turning 180 degrees and stretching to complete a zooming phrase, moving top to bottom, then bottom to top, through his super-sized drum kit -- and, whenever he had a few seconds to rest, adjusting the tension on his drum heads to alter their pitch.

It was like watching Billy Cobham, the jazz power drummer -- cloned. Herbert flowed through it, playing this strangely beautiful music with energetic efficiency and expressive elan.

There were six large drums, deep-toned, in the bottom row; nine smaller, custom-built ``tenor'' timpanis in the upper row, higher-toned and set at shoulder height, drum heads strategically angled toward the soloist. Herbert helped design this setup, which allows for the timpani's range to be extended up into previously unexplored regions where new colors and actual melodicism emerge, thanks to Kraft, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's former principal timpanist. He was cajoled by Herbert and Tilson Thomas to write the concerto and was in Thursday's audience for the premiere.

The orchestra seemed to have been turned inside out: Percussionists, forever at the back of the orchestra, have been waiting for this moment. Aside from Herbert, four percussionists played dozens of instruments, including tuned gongs, muted nipple gongs, pitched cowbells, vibraslap, flexitone, tam-tams and something called ``lath on leather.''

Yet all that percussive activity (and that included Herbert's cadenzas) was integrated into the full orchestra's 20-minute excursion through this episodic work in two main parts, with its expanding and ever-varying web of motives, rhythms, harmonies. It was luminous, then subterranean; quiet as the inside of a clock, then brass-blast loud. Herbert joined the violas in a gentle gamelan-like melody one minute, then segued into a passage of rolling thunder.

It was a new musical language, and quite wonderful -- though not nearly as wonderful as the Beethoven, which has its own share of timpani pronouncements and sometimes is referred to by timpanists as a ``concerto for percussion and orchestra.'' The Ninth really changed the language of music when it was premiered in 1824 -- it was long; it used voices -- and was greeted with more skepticism than Kraft's ``Grand Encounter'' has been.

We've all heard Beethoven's Ninth a million times. But this felt fresh: the darkness-to-light moves in the first movement; the hammer blows of the second; the unsurpassable warmth of the third; and then the Ode to Joy.

Tilson Thomas slowed down the first movement's coda just enough to emphasize its ethereal quality. He took the scherzo's trio section briskly, and then urged his players to breathe feeling into the soaring chords at the trio's conclusion.

Beyond details such as these, Tilson Thomas conducted the orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, directed by Vance George, with an absolute and comfortable authority. Hearing the music was like looking down into clear pools of water; the clarity of the performance released the music's energy and emotion. And after Kraft's piece, Beethoven's great churning rhythms stood out in sharp relief -- something else to consider about the master's music.

For the Finale, four songbirds moved to the front of the stage: soprano Twyla Robinson, mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and bass Raymond Aceto, the best of the bunch, his voice rich and rising as he sang, ``O Freunde -- O friends -- let us tune our voices in more pleasant and more joyful song.''

The chorus was over-the-top in the best possible way, with power and feeling. Tilson Thomas was singing along, exhorting the choristers -- and bringing forth this still-powerful, still-radical music.

The San Francisco SymphonyBeethoven's Symphony No. 9, William Kraft's ``XIII/The Grand Encounter,'' Timpani Concerto No. 2

When/where 8 p.m. Friday at the Flint Center, Cupertino; also 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

Tickets Sold out, though cancellations may make some available. $26-$52 (Flint); $30-$103 (Davies)

Information(415) 864-6000,

Contact Richard Scheinin at or (408) 920-5069.

© 2005 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.