Jauvon Gilliam to make debut as National Symphony Orchestra timpanist

Drumming up business: Jauvon Gilliam makes his premiere as National Symphony Orchestra timpanist tonight.
Drumming up business: Jauvon Gilliam makes his premiere as National Symphony Orchestra timpanist tonight. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jauvon Gilliam, for seven years a timpanist with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, really, really wanted to win the vacant timpani position with the National Symphony Orchestra when the opening was announced last year. So he rented a minivan, packed up his drums and drove 26 hours across the country to audition. He got called back and made the drive a second time.

To make sure he was mentally prepared, he called up timpanists in major American orchestras along the way and asked if he could play for them. He wanted to get used to playing nervous, in unfamiliar situations. The first two attempts went terribly. The next two went much better. And by the time he got to Washington, he was in great form. He was the orchestra's unanimous choice for the position.

If you want to win a job of this caliber, Gilliam says, this is what you have to do. Seven hours a day of practicing in the months leading up to the audition. No social life, no free time. And, "You really have to bring your own instruments," he says. "It's an expense, and it's a pain, but if you want to win, you really have to."

Gilliam, 30, is playing his first concert with his new orchestra Thursday night, when Christoph Eschenbach, the orchestra's new music director, makes his first and only appearance with them before taking over this fall.

Gilliam is walking on air. He's back in his own country (he was raised, an only child, in Gary, Ind.). He's landed a job at a much larger orchestra, playing with a world-renowned conductor. He's got a teaching position lined up at the University of Maryland, starting in the fall. And he's flying. "You can't wipe the smile off my face," he says. "If you're ever at concerts, you're going to see the grin from afar."

Timpanists -- the players who stand fenced in by huge, taut, tuned drum heads at the back of the stage -- are certainly not the showiest members of the orchestra. But they're essential, providing a pulse that the rest of the orchestra is attuned to, or adding a rousing emphasis to powerful moments (as Gilliam surely will get to do in Thursday night's Verdi Requiem).

"I feel like he's the pitcher, I'm the catcher," Gilliam says of his relationship to the conductor. "He throws it, I have to catch it."

"If I play what I'm supposed to play, nobody notices," Gilliam said. "And that's the way it should be. But if I mess up, everybody notices."

"Technically, he is supreme," Eschenbach says, caught in a brief moment backstage between appointments in his new artistic home. "It is fantastic what he can do with the timpani. Already behind the curtain" -- the first round of auditions is played behind a curtain, to prevent listeners forming preconceptions based on appearance -- "one heard so many colors." Furthermore, Eschenbach says, "he listens to the orchestra. The orchestra was very impressed with that. Me, too.

"I think it's a big, big plus for the orchestra to have this man," he adds.

Now that Gilliam is finally beginning, he's plunging right in. Next week, as part of the orchestra's Young People's Concerts, Gilliam will play an excerpt from Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra; its percussion part was one of the excerpts he played on his audition. "It's a piece that's really hard, but playable," he says. It does, though, involve a lot of hand- and footwork, including a choreographed flip of the drumstick to allow the player to switch from a wooden to a padded striking surface. Gilliam will play this eye-catching excerpt for the students.

Before starting rehearsals this week, Gilliam, a self-professed "drum dork," finished the last stage of settling in by hanging pictures in his new Washington apartment. "Of course," he said, "they're all of drums."

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