Fred Begun, National Symphony Orchestra timpanist
By Stefanie Dazio,
Fred Begun, a Brooklyn-born Juilliard graduate who spent 48 years as principal timpanist of the National Symphony Orchestra, died Sept. 23 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 84.
He died of complications from a single-car accident three weeks ago, said his daughter Rosalie Begun.
Two months after graduating in 1951 with a percussion degree from the Juilliard School in New York, Mr. Begun became the timpanist for the NSO. It was a rare symphony orchestra vacancy in an era where most timpanists found jobs in radio and TV studio orchestras.
His earliest ambitions were in jazz, and he was smitten by the animated playing of drummer-bandleader Gene Krupa in the 1930s and 1940s. Mr. Begun channeled that jaunty showmanship into his symphonic career — he was frequently described as a dancer behind the drums. He also favored the hep-cat jive talk favored by jazz musicians, often ending sentences with “baby.”
Paul Hume, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic, once described Mr. Begun as a “virtuoso artist of rare caliber.”
While the drummer gave thunderous interpretation to dramatic music — his blistering percussion work on Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 was likened to “Armageddon itself” — Mr. Begun most prided himself on modulation and eliciting graceful and melodious phrases.
He said the hardest pieces to play required the discipline to create almost no sound on the kettle drums and still provide essential girding for a symphonic work.
“It’s something like this,” he once told The Post as he leaned over a drum and brought forth an almost silent rumble with his sticks. “That’s the opening of ‘La Mer’ by Debussy. The problem is to get the long, sustained sound . . . and keep it going absolutely pianissimo. That’s hard.”
One of the highlights of his career was playing composer Robert Parris’s Concerto for Five Kettle-Drums and Orchestra in 1958. It provided a rare chance for the timpanist to move to the front of the stage and shine as a featured soloist.
Mr. Begun told Time magazine that he encouraged Parris, a fellow Juilliard graduate, to write the piece. “I suggested five drums jestingly,” Mr. Begun said, one more than the traditional maximum with an orchestra.
Even at four drums, it was a technically complicated piece, requiring each drum not to cancel out the pitch of the others and providing the timpanist enough time between solos for tuning (the lights and audience affect the moisture in the room, and thus the tuning).
The work earned plaudits from Hume, who described it as a “tour de force” of power and melodic skill for Mr. Begun. The percussionist later quipped of the athletic performance, “This could send me to an osteopath.”
Fred Begun was born Aug. 30, 1928, in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Europe. He grew up in Washington and was a 1946 graduate of Eastern High School. At Juilliard, he studied under Saul Goodman, the celebrated timpanist with the New York Philharmonic.
His first wife, Clair Berger, whom he married in 1957, died in 1990. His second wife, Marian Williams, died in 1999.
Survivors include his companion of seven years, Jane Faust of Washington; two daughters from his first marriage, Julie Begun of Bethesda and Rosalie Begun of Alexandria; a brother, Eugene Begun of Silver Spring; and a grandson.
After retirement from the NSO in 1999, Mr. Begun volunteered with the Mighty Special Music Makers, a group of musicians with mental and physical disabilities, and occasionally sat in with local jazz groups as a drummer.
In April, Mr. Begun donated his music and writings to George Mason University. They consisted of hundreds of timpani pieces, 40 to 50 scores, his journals and notes, said percussion instructor John Kilkenny. “It’s a history of 20th century orchestra music,” Kilkenny said.
The school dedicated its percussion suite to Mr. Begun, and some students are receiving financial support through a scholarship in his name.
Mr. Begun, a D.C. resident, wryly suggested why the percussionist served a vital function in a symphonic orchestra. The timpani, he said, are “used at very strategic moments to keep the audience awake.”