The Kennedy Center

Timpani Concerto No. 1

About the Work

James Oliverio Composer: James Oliverio
© Thomas May

The composer, educator, and new media producer James Oliverio (now based in Florida) has been redefining what it means to be a creative artist in the 21st century. "As composer there are two main ‘instruments' that I work with: the symphony orchestra and the digital media studio," he says, envisioning a music of the future that bridges the gap between traditional acoustic instruments and our rapidly evolving digital world. "Ultimately I want to unite them-to remove the distinction between my digital and orchestral endeavors," adds Oliverio, an acclaimed pioneer of globally synchronized performing arts collaborations.

Through his innovative work as the founding director of the Digital Worlds Institute at the University of Florida, for example, Oliverio has organized events featuring performers on every inhabited continent playing live music with dancers, accompanied by video and graphics. His credits as a composer also include commissions and collaborations with leading orchestras and institutions, such as the Cleveland Orchestra (which gave the world premiere of the Timpani Concerto No. 1), the New York Philharmonic, the Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Columbus Symphonies, New York City Ballet, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Oliverio has collaborated with Wynton Marsalis on several projects, including All Rise and the Swing Symphony. He also holds five Emmy Awards for his compositions for television (among them, the soundtrack for The World of Audubon series).

Yet for all his focus on innovation, Oliverio wryly likes to point out that "my favorite technology is pencil and paper." In recent years he has been returning to writing for the orchestra and to the kind of project represented by the Timpani Concerto No. 1, which was premiered in 1990. This is the first of Oliverio's path-breaking concertos for the instrument, which he conceived for Paul Yancich, the principal timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra. In 2011 he created a "sequel" of sorts with Dynasty, a Double Timpani Concerto for Paul and his brother Mark Yancich, principal timpanist of the Atlanta Symphony.

The composer had known the brothers since all three were students at the Cleveland Institute of Music, when he wrote a short piece for timpani and double bass for Paul to play at his senior recital-the seed of his First Timpani Concerto. Dynasty was commissioned by both Yancich brothers, Dynasty referring to this remarkable musical family (whose ancestors date back to The Mayflower). Oliverio has also written a concerto (No. 2, 2007) for the timpanist Ben Ramirez, DRUMMA (1998) for timpanist and large percussion ensemble, and The Messenger (2001), a concerto for percussion, orchestra, and digital media.

When the Timpani Concerto No. 1 (subtitled "The Olympian") was introduced, it explored facets of the instrument that had remained virtually unknown, let alone exploited: above all, the timpani's potential as an expressive melodic instrument. "Typically," explains Oliverio, "the emphasis is on its bravura and strength." We tend to hear the timpani playing one or two notes to emphasize a climactic passage, yet in The Olympian Oliverio calls for eight separate drums to be played by the soloist. You'll notice how the NSO's timpanist Jauvon Gilliam, who is positioned front and center stage, has to tune them with his feet while in the middle of playing with his hands-a choreography all its own. The soloist needs to have these different pitches at his disposal to play the score's complex thematic material-hardly the tonic-dominant punctuation found in so much of the classical literature for timpani.

Oliverio elaborates: "I want to bring out the virtuosity that symphony players have spent their entire lives trying to perfect." He compares the ways he stretches technique in The Olympian to "what Chopin did for the piano or Paganini for the violin," who redefined what was possible on their instruments. "That's my contribution to the literature for this instrument." And the higher plateau of achievement necessary to master the piece-which has since become a ‘rite of passage' for many serious timpani students-brought to mind the sheer virtuosity of an Olympian athlete, suggesting the concerto's subtitle. But underneath all the fine-tuned prowess of the performer, the composer underscores his belief that the basis of all his musical endeavors, whether with the age-old vehicle of the orchestra or with the latest digital advances, is the unquenchable desire for "human expression and communication."


Oliverio provides the following description of his three-movement concerto:

The First Movement begins pianissimo, introducing the main theme in the lower strings and building to a brief but dramatic Maestoso section. Unusual groupings of instrumental timbres (the rhythmic duet between solo harp and timpani, for example) typify this movement. The percussive quality of this writing is enhanced by frequent pizzicato and col legno passages in the strings, and in a turnabout from the usual it is the timpani that takes the melody while the strings provide the rhythmic accompaniment.

The Second Movement opens with ringing chords from the percussion section, and maintains a more sustained quality throughout. The timpanist is frequently playing two separate pitches at once, showcasing the instrument's ability to render harmonic counterpoint with clearly discernable "voices." The timpanist offers extended melodic passages often voiced in sevenths and thirds, using a variety of mallets to achieve a range of tonal nuance. The final section pairs the timpani and lower strings in a lyrical melody which, unfolding, carries us to a hushed conclusion.

The Third Movement ushers in with a compelling rolled crescendo and "fanfare" motif. The instrumental texture builds through a layering of rhythms and simultaneous motifs, climaxing at the onset of the timpanist's cadenza. In the spirit of the improvised cadenzas of virtuosi of past eras, the composer calls for the solo timpanist to present his own "signature" cadenza. The orchestra then rejoins the soloist in a shared tour de force as we are propelled through the finale, which concludes with a dramatic sforzando.


Did You Know? The Olympian Concerto was written for Jauvon Gilliam's teacher, Paul Yancich, and its world premiere with The Cleveland Orchestra took place on May 10, 1990. 24 years later to the day, Jauvon Gilliam performs it with his own orchestra, the NSO.