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With mallets toward all

For L.A. composer and timpanist Joseph Pereira, the quest for newer, fresher sounds is never-ending.

May 06, 2012|Barbara Isenberg
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic principal timpanist Joseph Pereira with a drum at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Philharmonic principal timpanist Joseph Pereira with a drum… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Timpanist Joseph Pereira was in the kitchen, preparing to marinate short ribs in French wine, when he made an important discovery: That nice plastic cork at the top of the wine bottle had a terrific consistency.

It wasn't long before Pereira, who has long customized his instruments, was experimenting with the plastic cork inside the end of his drum mallets. "I cut the top part off and wrapped it for a new stick, which I use every week," says the musician and composer. "It has a really warm tone to it."

His compositions also come from unlikely sources. Ideas for Pereira's double-bass quartet, which premiered last month at Walt Disney Concert Hall, drew on both "The Godfather: Part II" and Canto 20 from Dante's Purgatorio. His new concerto for percussion and chamber orchestra, premiering Tuesday night with Gustavo Dudamel at the podium, was inspired in part by his reading about Balboa's discovery of the Pacific Ocean.

Dark and handsome, Pereira looks like a drummer but talks like a scholar. He is serious about his craft, which he knows doesn't always get enough respect as serious musicianship. "There is a lot of creativity and exploration in sound that we have to do for percussion," he says. "It's not just two plates of metal or drums and sticks. You have to work hard at it, or you deserve all the bad jokes like: Will the musicians and the percussionists go onstage."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 06, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Joseph Pereira: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, an article about timpanist Joseph Pereira says that Gustavo Dudamel will be conducting Tuesday's Green Umbrella concert, which includes a new composition by Pereira. After the section went to press, Dudamel withdrew from the concert. Jeffrey Milarsky will conduct.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 13, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Joseph Pereira: A May 6 article on timpanist Joseph Pereira said that Gustavo Dudamel would be conducting the May 8 Green Umbrella concert, which included a new composition by Pereira. After the section went to press, Dudamel withdrew from the concert. Jeffrey Milarsky conducted.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 13, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Joseph Pereira: In the May 6 Arts & Books section, an article about timpanist Joseph Pereira said that Gustavo Dudamel would be conducting the May 8 Green Umbrella concert, which included a new composition by Pereira. After the section went to press, Dudamel withdrew from the concert and was replaced by Jeffrey Milarsky.

He certainly has worked hard. The Queens-born Pereira joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 as principal timpanist after more than 10 years with the New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant principal timpanist and section percussionist. Other musicians still talk about how Pereira, now 37, auditioned for and got the New York job at 23 while still studying at the Juilliard School. (He completed his master's in percussion at Juilliard part time while playing in the N.Y. Philharmonic.)

He's still working hard, both off and onstage. Timpanists almost exclusively play big copper drums, but what covers and what hits those drums varies from player to player. Pereira's instruments are nearly all custom-made, generally with imported materials, and many are made by Pereira himself. The top of his drums is calfskin from Ireland, which he buys in rolls, then soaks in water and dries for three days. He puts the skins on the German-made drums himself, tightening and tuning to get the sounds he wants.

His mallets, or drumsticks, are made of bamboo from China, crafted for him by JG Percussion in San Diego. Company founder and owner Jason Ginter recalls that he sent Pereira a Facebook message about his products a few years ago, and the two met at a cafe in Los Angeles. They dumped a few dozen mallets on the table, he says, "and then we started talking about the sounds we wanted to create. That was his goal -- to create sounds that weren't currently available."

Starting with his flexible bamboo sticks, which he likens to violin bows, Pereira customizes the heads with a variety of materials, including not just cork but also rubber, wood, felt, leather and flannel to make them softer or harder. "It's all about the weights, which are crucial. With timpani, it's not just the sound but also getting the right color to fit the character of the music you're playing."

As Disney Hall concertgoers know, Pereira and his timpani are usually at the back of the stage, dead center. "There's this saying that the timpani is like the backbone or second conductor as far as rhythm is concerned," he says. "I think that's why I'm straight in the back, like a baseball catcher, where I can hear and see everything."

Orchestra colleague Christopher Hanulik, the L.A. Philharmonic's principal bassist, agrees. "A good timpanist can provide a fabulous foundation for the orchestra in terms of sound, timing and rhythm," says Hanulik. "It can really help in terms of stabilizing the orchestra, and many times we use Joe to play off of."

It was Hanulik who commissioned Pereira to write the amplified double-bass quartet that premiered here last month, turning the basses into instruments that sounded like electric guitars. "He is an interesting writer," says Hanulik. "He could draw out some effects that a lot of composers don't take full advantage of."

Pereira started composing as an undergraduate at Boston University, where he received a bachelor's degree with a double major in performance and composition/theory. Besides his recent pieces for percussion and double bass, he writes music for a variety of instruments, including winds, English horn and cello. His violin solo was just recorded at Disney Hall, and due out soon is a recording for flute and dumbek, a hand drum.

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