In the Spark episode “Work in Progress,” go behind the scenes with the San Francisco Symphony in the rehearsal of a groundbreaking new work for timpani and orchestra by renowned composer William Kraft. “The Grand Encounter” (or “Timpani Concerto no. 2”) premiered in June 2005 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco to a sold-out audience, many of whom were timpanists from around the country who had traveled to hear the instrument played in an innovative way.
Timpani are classical percussion instruments usually consisting of four large pitched drums made of copper with stretched skin heads. They stand at waist-level and are played with two timpani sticks (also called mallets). Timpani sounds are modulated by adjusting the six or eight tuning screws around the rim and by using the foot pedals. The drums have been fundamental in the classical symphonic repertoire since the 17th century, although they are rarely the main solo instruments.
Kraft wrote the first-ever work for timpani and orchestra, which the San Francisco Symphony premiered in 1999. San Francisco Symphony’s music director Michael Tilson Thomas collaborated with David Herbert, the symphony’s principal timpanist, to commission a second timpani concerto from Kraft that would require the construction of a special set of 15 timpani drums.
The expansion to 15 drums widens the pitch capabilities of the instrument, enabling a timpanist to make seamless transitions between pitches as if the timpanist was playing a single drum with a very large range. This innovation marks only the second time a modification of this type has been made to the instrument since the early 1900s when the pedals were added. The expansion also pushes the physical agility of the timpanist — requiring deft, highly time-sensitive movements between the drums.
More about William Kraft
William Kraft served as the principal timpanist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 18 years and as the composer-in-residence from 1981 to 1985. He founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. Kraft holds a B.A. and M.A. from Columbia University. His many accomplishments includes such awards as Guggenheim Fellowships and Anton Seidl Fellowships and commissions from the Kronos Quartet, the U.S. Library of Congress and the Boston Pops Orchestra.
More about the San Francisco Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony has enjoyed more than 90 years of widespread musical success. Michael Tilson Thomas is the symphony’s 11th music director. MTT is also the founding artistic director of the New World Symphony, an intensive three-year fellowship program headquartered in Miami, Florida.