Although David Herbert served contentedly for 16 years as the principal timpanist of the San Francisco Symphony, one of the country’s top orchestras, he didn’t hesitate when the equivalent position opened at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He decided to seize the rare opportunity to play with one of the country’s oldest and most respected such ensembles.
“It was a big deal, and I just wanted to try,” he said. “I thought it would be a good challenge.”
Herbert won the audition in 2013, succeeding Donald Koss, who had held the position for 47 years, and becoming just the CSO’s fourth timpanist in its 132-year history. He will be in spotlight May 25-27, when he appears as a soloist with the orchestra for the first time.
He will perform the Timpani Concerto No. 1 by William Kraft, one of the best-known works for the instrument. Kraft, a Chicago native who died in 2022 at 98, served as principal timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 18 years and was the ensemble’s composer-in-residence in 1981-85. Herbert first performed the 1983 concerto in 1992 with the National Repertory Orchestra, a training ensemble in Breckenridge, Colorado, and has returned to it several times since.
After being invited to perform as a soloist with the orchestra, Herbert suggested this work to Music Director Riccardo Muti, because he hoped the conductor would appreciate its Classical-style structure. The concerto explores a wide range of the sounds and effects that can be produced on the instrument, including what Herbert calls the timpani’s “glissandi elements” in the slow second movement.
“It’s really fun,” he said. “It’s not a big, flashy, bangy thing. The solo part is very integrated within the ensemble, so it’s a great dialogue with all of the other instruments. As a matter of fact, I start out alone, then it becomes a duet, then it becomes a trio, and it adds more and more instruments. The concept of the growth, how the piece germinates from the very first opening notes to its conclusion, is logical, and it has a Classical construction that I thought would be a good fit. I think it is a great piece.”
“The concept of the growth, how the piece germinates from the very first opening notes to its conclusion, is logical. ... I think it is a great piece.” — David Herbert on Kraft’s Timpani Concerto No. 1
Herbert grew up in Columbia, the home of the main campus of the University of Missouri, where his father headed the keyboard faculty. His mother was also a professional pianist, so it was hardly surprising that he began taking piano lessons as a child, switching to percussion when he was recruited in junior high to play some of the pitched percussion instruments like xylophone and bells in the school band. Enjoying this new musical world, he took drum lessons and started playing timpani in high school.
He was still playing piano at the time, but he focused primarily on percussion when he began college, transferring his junior year to the St. Louis Conservatory of Music, which has since closed. Herbert was inspired there by Richard Holmes, the longtime principal timpanist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. “He was beautiful to watch,” he said. “He was like poetry in motion. Once I saw him and how great he was, I transferred over so I could be around him and study with him.”
He was allowed to more fully focus on the timpani as his instrument of choice when he entered graduate studies at New York’s Juilliard School with Roland Kohloff, principal timpanist at the New York Philharmonic. “As I was doing more and more percussion, timpani seemed the best instrument because you get to play all the great composers, which I was used to with the piano background. But you are playing drums, so it was kind of the best of both worlds,” he said. Full-blown percussion sections only became part of orchestras in the 20th century, but many earlier works call for timpani, including early examples like Monteverdi’s 1607 opera, Orfeo.
After graduating from Juilliard in 1992, Herbert played with the New World Symphony, a pre-professional training ensemble in Miami Beach, Florida, for nearly two years under music director Michael Tilson Thomas. During his second year, Herbert got an interim one-year appointment with the San Francisco Symphony during Herbert Blomstedt’s final season as music director and split his time between the two ensembles. When Tilson Thomas took over as the San Francisco Symphony’s artistic leader the following season, he asked Herbert to stay on, and the timpanist eventually won an audition to be the orchestra’s permanent principal timpanist.
Although Herbert had already been at a major orchestra when he came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013, it was nonetheless a challenging transition. First of all, the CSO has a bigger sound, and he had to “ramp up” his playing so he could produce enough volume to be properly heard. “The hall is different, and the orchestra plays differently,” Herbert said. “The hall in San Francisco is much more [acoustically] live, and the risk would be that I could overplay and muddy up the orchestra with what I was doing and be kind of dominant. Coming to Chicago, I had to generate a lot more sound — not just the louder dynamics but even the softer dynamics.” It also became even more important to have a full timpani sound — not one that is “edgy” or “bangy.” If he is playing correctly, he said, the instrument should be heard as an “internal force” at the core of the orchestra’s sound.
At the same time, Herbert had to make what he called a “cultural shift” in his approach. The CSO is one of the world’s most respected orchestras with a storied history of working with famed composers, conductors and soloists and presenting American and world premieres of milestone compositions. “You feel like you are part of history in the making,” he said. “You feel like you are part of something much bigger than ourselves. I was not quite used to that.” Along with that sense of history, there is a respect for the music and musicians and an attention to detail that pervades everything the CSO does. “When you combine the history of the orchestra and the history of the stage and all the seriousness that Maestro Muti brings to each and every rehearsal and performance, there’s a level of reverence,” he said. “That’s the big difference.”
Herbert is quick to make clear that he is not saying that the San Francisco Symphony didn’t take a serious approach to everything it does, but the level of seriousness at the CSO just seemed higher.
Timpani or kettledrums, as they are sometimes known, consist of flat synthetic or calfskin heads stretched across large, rounded bowls traditionally made of copper. Foot pedals typically allow for pitch adjustments of the instruments, which each have a different size and pitch range across the usual set of four or five. Herbert performs on Dresden-style timpani made to his specifications in Denver by the now-defunct American Drum Manufacturing Co., which was founded in 1950 by Walter Light, a timpanist with what was once known as the Denver Symphony Orchestra.
There are three types of timpani sticks or mallets: American, which produce a more direct, heavier sound that works well with the CSO; Berlin, which are lighter and well suited to much of the Austro-Germanic repertoire, and Vienna, which are even lighter and accommodate works by Mozart and Beethoven. “Because of the difference in balance and weights, the various sticks can often require entirely different techniques. I can’t play the Berlin sticks the way I play the American sticks. It’s an entirely technique. It’s the same with the Vienna sticks. It’s a different stroke on the instrument. The balance is so radically different.”
Herbert owns hundreds of pairs of sticks that cover virtually every gradation of sound and weight, and he typically chooses four to 10 pairs for each program according to the types of works that are to be performed. In search of a specific sound, conductors sometimes ask for a certain type of stick, but that is rare. Herbert knows Muti and most of the guest conductors and their preferences and can anticipate what they will want. Muti, for example, has what Herbert calls a “cantabile (songlike)” style, so he is careful to use sticks that will articulate the rhythms without producing a sound that is too harsh.
To refine his sound, Herbert switched the order of his timpani around in 2005. He moved from the American to the traditional configuration that is more typical in the great ensembles of Germany and Austria, in which the timpani are arranged high to low from right to left. He was asked to perform as a guest artist in Germany with orchestras like the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, and he enjoyed the change and felt it better suited him as a right hander. “Also, it’s more traditional. It is called the traditional way of playing,” he said.
Although, as noted, he has served as soloist for the Kraft Concerto No. 1 several times before, this is the first time he is playing it with the so-called traditional or German configuration. “I’m having to relearn everything,” he said. “It’s a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. Even though I have played this concerto many times in the past, this is the first time I’m playing it, you could say, backwards.”