'Symphony' for timpani
highlights Crusoe

R.M. Campbell
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Saturday, January 8, 2000

photo by Yuen Lui Studios  

After celebrating the end of the millennium with all sorts of musical chestnuts, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra devoted itself to the unknown and little-known in its first subscription program of the year.

That is not to say there were premieres. The music performed Thursday night at Benaroya Hall has been around for sometime. It just hasn't been played much over the past decades.

The concert opened with a showpiece for Michael Crusoe, principal timpanist of the symphony. One of the most visible members of the orchestra, he is also one of the most talented. His musicianship is acute and his high level of playing consistent. With the heightened clarity of Benaroya one is able to hear Crusoe in music that sometimes got lost in the more muffled Opera House.

He was featured in a piece by Johann Carl Christian Fischer. It was a concerto, although the late 18th century composer called it a symphony, for timpani (eight kettledrums) and orchestra. The German composer is so obscure that he's not even listed in standard reference books. But there are not many concertos for timpani in the repertory, so choices are very limited.

The work is only interesting because it features an instrument often heard within the context of an orchestra but rarely as a solo instrument. The performance was notable for Crusoe's incisive playing as he worked his way around eight timpani - four on each side - more than double the usual number.

Although Fischer gave the timpanist a cadenza at the end of the first movement, following the well-worn concerto convention, he didn't give a lot of other maneuvers designed to reveal the virtuosity and capability of the instrument. The timpani is rather fabulous, I think, in its range of motion and varied sound, one of the few drums to possess actual pitch. What we did hear was the singing quality of the instrument, often lost in the orchestral fabric, and Crusoe's musical manners, both persuasive and insightful.


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