It’s a pretty short list when you try to name the persons who have really affected and changed musical life in Los Angeles. There are many who brought fame to L.A., and there are several who became famous through Los Angeles. But fame is much easier than impact and change. Bill Kraft is one of that short list. He was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 26 years, 18 of which were as Principal Timpanist. As conductors and administrators worked with the orchestra to make it a more stellar ensemble and to bring vitality to contemporary music, Bill Kraft was a leader from within the orchestra. He was founder and director of the Phil’s New Music Group, instrumental in getting that started and recognized. He was the Phil’s composer in residence for four years. He was a soloist. He was a performer. He was a director. He was a teacher. He was and is a composer.
Last night Southwest Chamber Music opened their series with the first concert devoted to the music of William Kraft. They had initially programmed seven (7) of Kraft’s “Encounters”, but found that rearranging percussion for each piece (with one exception) took a little too much time. As a result, their plan for two “Encounters” concerts now looks like at least three, stretching into next season. I’m one of the many fans of Kraft, so as far as I’m concerned, the more concerts the better.
The concert comprised “Encounters” from the late 1960s and the 1970s. This period includes the only “Encounter” that lacks percussion; interestingly, it may have been the first “Encounter” written. Encounters I: Soliloquy (1975) is for percussion with tape. While Bill writes for percussion, he puts tuned percussion at the center of so many of his works. Often the instruments are the timpani, but in Encounters I (and through much of the evening) the major instrument was the vibraphone. The work was done on commission for a performer who wanted a work to take on travel appearances; the vibraphone was selected because Kraft was able to work with a full range of techniques to color and shape the tones. Ricardo Gallardo, leader of the percussion group “Tambuco“, was soloist and did a lovely job with a work that seems to require a person with three arms to handle the bows and the mallets.
Encounters II (1966) is for solo tuba. It was composed for and with the great tubaist Roger Bobo, for so many years a vital part of the Phil as well as soloist and recording artist. Bobo and Kraft wrote a work showing off the musical range of the instrument and changing its sound color through a variety of techniques, including singing while playing. The soloist was Zach Collins, who will receive his doctorate in tuba from USC this December. [Yes, I know that the degree is actually in music performance; I enjoy thinking of someone with a tuba doctorate.]
Encounters III: Duel for Trumpet and Percussion (1972) had trumpeter Thomas Stevens as commissioner and collaborator, and it was performed well last night by Tony Ellis. Lynn Vartan, the percussionist of Southwest Chamber, was the rival, and victor, in the contest. Kraft spoke to the audience about his tendency to write music in which percussion wins, and he related how after one performance of this piece the trumpeter slowly left stage with his final diminuendo to return to stage waving a white handkerchief.
After intermission they presented Encounters VII: Blessed Are The Peacemakers: For They Shall Be Called the Children of God (1978) for speaker and two percussionists. Miguel Gonzalez of “Tambuco” joined Vartan in this attractive work that emphasizes the ability of percussion to make melody. The narrative elements, fortunately short, include quotations from religious texts and from secular poetry. The conclusion of the concert was Encounters VI: Concertino for Roto Toms and Percussion Quartet (1976). Vartan was joined by the “Tambuco” quartet in a good performance. It’s the only work I’ve ever heard with eight (8) bows getting notes from the vibraphone simultaneously. It’s a rare sound.
It was almost a sell-out at Zipper Hall last night, an audience of close to 300. We stood and applauded to bring Bill Kraft out again and again. I think the audience was as pleased as the performers and the composer.