Peabody prof and world-class percussionist Jonathan Haas speaks out from the orchestra’s back row
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“When I was at Juilliard, when I got there we weren’t allowed to give a recital,” percussionist Jonathan Haas says over coffee and a light lunch at a Mount Vernon coffee shop. “There were no percussion recitals required. And I wanted to do one for my master’s degree, which I did do, but I had to go to [Juilliard President] Peter Mennen and basically beg and explain to him why. He said, ‘Why would you waste your time? What do you need to be doing this for? You’ll play in an orchestra.’ That’s basically what you did. You played in an orchestra or you played on a Broadway show, which at the time was the lowest thing you could do.”
Since leaving the Juilliard School the genially witty and utterly approachable Haas did both those things and much, much more. As head of the Peabody Institute’s percussion department for the past 22 years, Haas (who lives in New York and commutes to Baltimore for the beginning half of each week) has turned percussion ensembles from a conservatory novelty act into a serious course of study performing important works. A 1960s kid who got interested in the drums through rock ’n’ roll (and even played in a Doors cover band), the salt-and-pepper-haired Haas has performed with Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. He has improved crash cymbals (which now bear his name) for manufacturer Zildjian, and even built the world’s largest timpani drum out of a discarded metal tub formerly used to make Swiss cheese. He heads a percussion rental service based in Yonkers and Gemini Music Productions, which contracts musicians for Lincoln Center and New York Pops. And he has mounted a one-man crusade to bring percussion—especially the timpani drum—out of the symphony’s background and into its fore, quite literally in his spearheading the commission of the Philip Glass Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, which makes its wind-ensemble transcription world premiere this week at the Peabody.
“A concerto for timpani was my Everest for some time,” Haas admits, remembering the decade-long road to the 2000 debut of the piece with the American Symphony Orchestra. “Funding was a problem for some time, and when it finally came through I called [Glass] and said, ‘Philip, we got the money.’ And he said, ‘That’s great. I don’t have a thought in my head. Do you?’ Can you imagine how I felt when he said that?”
Haas worked closely with Glass on the conception of the piece, a rousing three-movement concerto with cadenza that is a much more instantly stirring work than the ruminative minimalism with which Glass is usually associated. Since its debut, Haas has traveled around the world with the piece, playing it with symphonies from Tel Aviv to Sydney, and has even performed an arrangement for two pianos and two timpanists. (“More for students who wanted to do it at their recitals at the schools that they were going to,” Haas says, “and they couldn’t afford and couldn’t organize a huge orchestra.”) Now comes this wind ensemble transcription, arranged by Mark Lortz, a former Haas student and the current director of bands and orchestra at Westminster High School.
“So the inspiration was being with somebody who I knew very well and having a project that I knew would be good for him and great for me because it puts the instrument in a whole new situation.,” Haas says. “I heard it for the first time last week in the first rehearsal. I could not believe how successful it was. It absolutely has the possibility of having a whole new life to it. I’ve done 33 performances [of the Concerto Fantasy] and I imagine I’m going to do another 33 performances with wind ensemble because it really sounds great.”
The ongoing life and incarnations of the Concerto Fantasy is a testament both to Haas’ tireless efforts to get the piece in front of audiences and the vitality of Glass’ composition. A January 2004 performance of the piece by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra featuring soloists Haas and Evelyn Glennie was recently released on the Philip Glass’ Concerto Project Vol. 1 on Glass’ own Orange Mountain Music imprint, and Haas reports that the composer himself has been surprised at its success.
“I love Glass’ response [to the piece] every time I talk to him,” Haas says. “We did a recording that just came out, and every time he hears it he just sort of sits there and shakes his head and says, ‘This thing really turned out so much better than I ever thought it could turn out.’”
It’s certainly turned out well for a music student who had been told his career options were playing for symphonies and Broadway—and that’s it. “I knew I wasn’t going either way,” Haas says. “Actually, let me amend that. I went that way and went all ways. I played in symphony orchestras, I played Broadway shows, and many other things.”
Haas’ many other things continue shortly after this week’s debut of the wind ensemble arrangement. In the coming months he performs the Glass piece with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Istanbul Philharmonic in Turkey, and the Jerusalem Symphony in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In March, Haas has a performance and recording lined up in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park of a piece he commissioned from Michael Udow for the monster timpani, a piece that features six 12-foot chimes. And come July, Haas performs Glass’ concerto with the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“That’s a big one,” he says. “For them to program this piece and welcome Chicago audiences to me is a dream come true. I grew up in Chicago, so I’m going home to play the piece, where my mom and dad can see it. I’m very excited about that. I never got into the Chicago Symphony because throughout my entire career there was never an opening. The timpanist has always been there, so there was never an opportunity. But I get to be in front, which is not bad. It’s not the job, but I’ll take it.”