This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah Symphony timpanist George Brown is an expert on things that go "boom" in the night.
He speaks of his instrument's characteristic sound by parsing that onomatopoeic word: "Buh-" for the initial impact of mallet on drumhead; "-oooom" for the long resonance that follows.
Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer requests a specific sound from Brown for Beethoven's music, and Brown describes it as "more 'buh,' less 'oooom.' "
Making changes to your playing style in middle age can be daunting, but Fischer made the prospect exciting by sharing a dream the acquisition of a new set of timpani designed to give crystalline authenticity to music of the Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, but with the heft of sound to fill a modern concert hall. Oh, and Brown was invited to research and choose the instruments.
His selection, small kettle drums from the German company Lefima, pleased Fischer. He'd had their exact sound in mind, having heard them in Europe. The new drums, which were paid for by Utah Symphony donors, were shipped to Utah in time for the orchestra's season opener, which featured Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
"The new timpani are transforming the sound of the orchestra," Fischer said, noting that the smaller kettledrums will be used only for performing music of the Classical era, circa 1750-1825.
Audience members can hear the transformation for themselves when the Utah Symphony continues its backward Beethoven cycle with the composer's Eighth Symphony. Judging by the positive feedback Brown has been receiving from colleagues and fans since the performance of Symphony No. 9, they will like what they hear.
"Everyone is just amazed at the difference, and I don't mean just the sound of me," Brown said. "The sound coming from the whole orchestra was just as exciting more compact, and with more precision and more clarity more punchy. I never remember hearing a more wildly enthusiastic and jubilant response for a Beethoven Ninth performance than I heard last Friday and Saturday nights. It was extremely gratifying and let me know that we're truly on the right track."
The resonant bass pitches the timpani produce are foundational to harmonic structure in music of the Classical era, and it was Fischer's intention that changes in the orchestra's timpani sound would be mirrored by the rest of the Utah Symphony's players.
He's already hearing a difference in the sound of the orchestra's violins, which are playing with less bow and more articulation their own version of the timpani's punchier sound. Fischer's intention is to give the Utah Symphony a distinctive sound for its Classical repertoire informed by performance practices of the time period, adapted to the capabilities of modern instruments in a large hall.
For Brown, one pleasure of playing the new timpani is that their precise, less boomy sound allows him to "get down" without fear of drowning out the rest of the orchestra one of the challenges with contemporary timpani.
That ability to fit perfectly within musical texture comes in part from the mallets used to play the new drums. Whereas the heads of traditional mallets are covered with felt of varying hardness, three mallet coverings are used with the new drums: hardwood, for the loudest sound; flayed leather, for medium volume; and patent leather, for soft playing. Brown switched off among all three for the recent Ninth Symphony performances.
The upcoming concerts offer the crystalline beauty of Igor Stravinsky's brief Suites Nos. 1 and 2 as a refreshing opener. In an unusual programming move, the Beethoven symphony will be the second piece. The evening ends with more Beethoven, the Napoleonic grandeur of Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor"). Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a longtime Utah favorite, is the soloist.
"It's too dull to end nine concerts with a symphony," Fischer said, speaking of his Beethoven cycle. "This is the first time we will finish with a concerto. You can do this with this very powerful concerto."
Count on George Brown to make sure the "Emperor's" message of triumph booms out with the crisp precision Beethoven intended.
The suite sounds of Stravinsky
P Music director Thierry Fischer conducts the Utah Symphony in music of Stravinsky and Beethoven.
With • Pianist Garrick Ohlsson.
When • Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23 and 24, at 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $17-$51; $10 in advance, $15 on performance day with student ID. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit http://www.arttix.org. Season subscribers and those desiring group discounts should call 801-533-NOTE.