Bang the Drum Repeatedly

Composer Philip Glass and timpanist Jonathan Haas move the kettledrums to the front of the Powell Hall stage

Still, the scheduling of a composition by Glass on an orchestra's calendar can create some annoyance among the musicians. Richard Holmes, who performs "Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra" with fellow timpanist (and his former Washington University student) Haas at Powell April 6-8, says he's already hearing a bit of prejudice voiced by his SLSO colleagues. "Monotony," "repetitive" and "boring" are a few of the pejoratives he's heard, and with 14 timpani taking up precious stage space, he figures the string section will be cut down and predicts it won't be hard to find volunteers: "The piece is very repetitive. I think it could be cut down, timewise, if he doesn't take all these repeats that he asks for. But it's in there, and we deal with it."

Holmes also expects complaints about the volume of the piece. Even for him, practicing the concerto, he finds that "it's physically tiring and aurally tiring. I can only practice so long because it's hard on your ears." For the performance, he jokes, "I think they're passing out earplugs in the lobby."

Despite Holmes' misgivings, the concerto has received generous praise from critics and audiences wherever Haas has performed it. Before coming to St. Louis, he will have performed the piece at Carnegie Hall with New York Pops and former Tonight Show musical director Skitch Henderson. Glass, who has frequently worked with pop musicians, such as David Bowie and Natalie Merchant (excluded from academic circles, he collaborated with artists people paid attention to), nonetheless is thrilled about the inclusion in the Carnegie Hall program. "I'm very pleased," he says. "It never occurred to me that I would be in a Skitch Henderson program."

Timpanist Jonathan Haas (left) in the studio with composer Philip Glass. "You know," Glass told Haas when he learned the musician had landed a grant for the composer's commission, "I don't have a thought in my mind what I'm going to write. That's good, right?"
Timpanist Jonathan Haas (left) in the studio with composer Philip Glass. "You know," Glass told Haas when he learned the musician had landed a grant for the composer's commission, "I don't have a thought in my mind what I'm going to write. That's good, right?"

Glass turns 65 next year, and although he's hired a staff to archive memorabilia from his career, he keeps the past at a distance -- quite literally in a building down the street from where he lives -- and prefers it that way: "It's a weight, in a certain way. I'm doing it because there is all this stuff and I don't know what else to do with it. There is an interest in it, but I have no interest in it, really."

He still performs older work as a soloist (a piano recital at the Sheldon on April 4 will include the recent "Etudes," along with music from The Screens, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and what serves as a Glass greatest hit, "Mad Rush") and with the Philip Glass Ensemble. He starts rattling off the ensemble's performing library -- "Music in 12 Parts," Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, the Low Symphony, the Heroes Symphony -- and you recognize that these are signature works of the late 20th century. No wonder he avoids the weight and keeps his mind open for renegade timpanists.

He's in production with Godfrey Reggio for the final "Qatsi" film, Naqoyqatsi, and finishing a film project of his own. He's got a sixth symphony to write for his 65th-birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, based on "Plutonium Ode," by his friend, the late poet Allen Ginsberg. Glass pauses as he contemplates the imminent future: "What else have I got to do this year? Oh yes, I'm starting on an opera based on the life of Galileo for the Goodman Theater in Chicago. There's a lot of interesting things to do this year."

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