Dueling Drummers

Drums will rumble when the Honolulu Symphony performs the world premiere of ‘Taiko and Timpani’ this weekend

Katie Young
Friday - April 01, 2005
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Setting the stage for their friendly
symphonic duel, Stuart Chafetz just
couldn’t resist the old rabbit ears
prank with Kenny Endo

It’s an unlikely pairing — a Connecticutborn principal timpanist and a master of the Japanese taiko drum playing simultaneously, backed by a full 80- piece orchestra. But trust us when we say it’s the most electrifying combination your ears will ever have the pleasure of hearing.

Get ready to feel it in your bones. The “Thunder from the East” will rattle the walls as local taiko drum master Kenny Endo and Honolulu Symphony’s principal timpanist Stuart Chafetz join drumsticks in the world premiere of Concerto for Taiko and Timpani.

The piece was written by Chinese- American composer Zhou Long especially for the Honolulu Symphony’s East Meets West concert series. The commissioned concerto will be performed Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. in the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

Concerto for Taiko and Timpani is another example of the efforts by the Honolulu Symphony and Maestro Samuel Wong over the past five years to blend Eastern and Western sounds.

“It’s the idea of looking through Eastern lenses at Western music and hearing Eastern music through Western ears,” explains Wong. “Nowhere is it more appropriate than Hawaii. Symphonic music has been around for a few hundred years. It has been recorded and re-recorded and retoured and re-enacted and resurrected … we need some new ground to enliven the symphonic experience.

“Zhou is a master craftsman of Eastern and Western forces,” adds Wong. The audience will get a rare opportunity to not only feel the rhythm of the drums but to see the skill of Endo and Chafetz at the front of the stage — a position percussionists rarely enjoy.

“Instruments that carry a lot of volume are usually in the back,” says Endo, one of the few taiko masters in the United States. “That’s just the way the orchestra is typically set up. In this case, I’m using five drums and Stuart is using five drums, and we’ll be soloing right out there in front.”

Chafetz’s timpani, or kettle drums, are big copper pots with drum heads and a pedal to alter the tone as desired. The drum face ranges in size from 20 to 32 inches. He’ll also be utilizing a special piccolo timpani for this piece; the whole set allows him to play notes over two octaves in range.

Endo rehearses for this weekend’s premiere

Endo’s taiko drums vary from 20 inches across to a kotsuzumi hand drum only 5 inches in diameter.

The concerto is not really a battle of East vs. West — though Endo and Chafetz joke about who has the bigger drum. The piece is more of a dialogue between the two percussion instruments which, according to Long, used to belong to one drum family.

Endo starts it off with a traditional kakegoe, or verbal cue, that sounds much like a call of the wild. “Yuuuuooopp! Yuuuuooopp!” he emphasizes with a couple of taps to his kotsuzumi.

Chafetz responds to this call with a roll of the timpani. The two converse back and forth, the music slowly building from separate entities into a song that perfectly blends uniform and interlocking patterns.

The concerto is like a dance between the drummers, one that leaves a spectator in awe of their masterfully manipulated drumsticks and split-second timing.

But while a musician knows his instrument as well as he knows the back of his hand, don’t think perfecting this original piece was easy to do. This composition is one that tests the normal limits of skill and brings Chafetz and Endo’s playing to another level.

The timpanist typically uses a mallet with a padded top, and a taiko player’s usual stick is straight wood.

Playing the concerto the right way meant several adjustments on the part of Chafetz and Endo so neither overpowers the other. These adjustments include using non-conventional sticks that give the drums a whole new sound.

“It was so weird, it was like I was playing a different instrument,” admits Chafetz of cadenzas where he’s required to play with his hands, something a timpanist rarely does. “But after playing timpani in a classical orchestra, it’s invigorating to try something new on the drums.”


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