Jauvon Gilliam is the Principal Timpanist for the National Symphony Orchestra.
Most of us on stage absolutely love our jobs. I am no different. Playing timpani here in our nation's capital never gets old. Although the timpani are one of the larger, more visible instruments, I generally see my role as an ensemble player, often times creating rhythmic and harmonic support for some of my more soloistic counterparts. But come mid-May, all of that changes.
"Titan." "Reformation." "Eroica." "Tragic." Through the years, pieces in the symphonic repertoire have been given nicknames that generally characterize the overall feeling of the work. The concerto I'm performing is nicknamed "The Olympian." After spending the last six months learning and preparing this monster of a piece, I can understand why.
A normal timpani setup requires four drums, set up in a semicircle around the player. James Oliverio's Timpani Concerto No. 1 calls for eight – six in a complete circle around the player and two more at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position. Scales, melodies, glissandi, cross-rhythms, constant pedal tuning; this piece has it all, including the 25 hardest measures of timpani playing that I've ever come across. At one point, I have to maneuver around all eight timpani at a break-neck tempo while simultaneously changing notes with my feet. James nicknamed this section the "octopus." These days, I'm getting more of a workout downstairs in the Kennedy Center (in the percussion studio) than I am at the gym!
One last tidbit: The Olympian was written for my teacher, Paul Yancich (timpanist of The Cleveland Orchestra) and premiered by them on May 10, 1990. 24 years later to the day, I'll be playing it here. Sweetness.
Photo by James Oliverio