Finally Back Home with Timpani

Finally Back Home with Timpani

Leonardo Soto, principal timpani, shared his experience of returning to playing timpani on the Jones Hall stage last week for the first time since spring.

How does it feel to return to playing timpani on stage?

Leonardo Soto: It’s the closest thing to normal so far, just to play timpani on a symphony—that’s what I do! Being in the back of the orchestra with my timpani felt like I’m finally back home—doing what I know to do best—after being gone for so long. There are still parts of it that are new, though, because the distances are so large between musicians and from my spot to the conductor, but all things considered being in that seat feels great. I’m not going to lie, I was really nervous for the concert!

The other thing I would like to point out is that we are witnessing how versatile the Houston Symphony musicians are with the repertoire we’re playing. The pieces we did a few weeks ago as a section were pieces that we otherwise never would’ve played at Jones Hall, and I hope that continues even when things go back to normal. I know we will be back to normal someday playing the huge Mahler symphonies that I love, but we should still also do these pieces that showcase our great musicians.

Tell us about your new timpani!

Leonardo Soto: I bought them right at the beginning of the pandemic—they’re these tiny drums made for this early music like Mozart symphonies, early Beethoven symphonies, and everything before that. They’re called Schnellar romantic drums. Schnellar was the timpanist for the Vienna Philharmonic over a hundred years ago, and he created this model of timpani. They are what I’ve been practicing on this whole time since spring, and I had been dying to hear them in Jones Hall so that was exciting.

I hadn’t been planning on buying them, but when the pandemic started, I brought this whole set of Schnellar romantic drums to my apartment. When I started the #quarantinedaysofpractice posting on my social media, a European based company I endorse, Adams, saw my videos and let me know they had a set of these drums. I had the opportunity to play them when we did our European tour a few years ago—when we were in Brussels it was only a short train ride from there to the Adams factory. They happened to have a set here in their warehouse in Nashville. I didn’t have anything in mind more than I love the drums, I know I’ll use them at some point in the orchestra, and they fit in my apartment perfectly, so I bought them. Then it happened to be that the first piece we did with timpani needed them.

I’ll use my regular drums this weekend because the sound isn’t quite right for the Schubert, but I’m sure with the new repertoire we’re doing I’ll be using those smaller drums quite a lot.

What can livestream audiences look forward to hearing this weekend?

Leonardo Soto: The Schubert is a really cool piece! It’s one of those pieces that, once the first and last movement get going, the music moves very fast—you can’t blink because you’ll get lost. It’s very sparkly and light. I never studied it closely before, but now that I’m working on it, I think it’s going to be a very fun piece to play and listen to!

Also, even though I’m not playing on it, I have to say that The Soldier’s Tale Suite by Stravinsky is fantastic. Brian Del Signore, our principal percussionist, will be playing the percussion on that.

We’re starting to introduce very small audiences to test safety protocols now that the season nears—what difference does it make to have audiences in the hall?

Leonardo Soto: Last Saturday when I walked on stage I was so focused on my drums, and then when I looked up, I remembered there were people there. I saw them socially distanced, wearing their masks, and it was great to see an audience.

There are a lot of lights in the hall because of the livestream cameras so it is harder to see the audience while performing, but once I first heard the applause it was so fantastic. You always feed off the energy of an audience, and that’s really the hardest part of playing concerts without them. Livestreaming for no audience can feel like a rehearsal or recording session where you’re playing the best you can with absolute focus, but there’s no response to your energy. Having the presence of people there, suddenly there’s energy again, and you realize how much you need it after you didn’t have it. With the audience there it was a completely different feeling—even though it wasn’t many people, it still meant so much more.

Be sure to purchase your livestream tickets to watch this weekend’s Live from Jones Hall: Schubert, Stravinsky & Marsalis on Saturday, August 29 at 8 p.m. Central to see Leo performing on timpani.

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