A Serkin or a Perlman or a Rampal may come to town as a soloist with the National Symphony, but none of them quite makes the impact of J. Paul Barnett.
He is what you might call a percussionist. But he calls himself "a concussionist." And his specialty is Tchaikovsky--specifically the work the composer labeled "1812: Ouverture Solonnelle, Op. 49."
Barnett tours only in the summer, because his instruments should only be played al fresco. That's because the 16 Lyle cannons that Tchaikovsky wrote into the old Russian National Hymn at the close of the overture would pose a threat if set off indoors. Tchaikovsky wrote the overture in 1880 to be played in the open at the consecration of Moscow's Cathedral of the Savior. It celebrates Napoleon's defeat by the Russians in 1812.
Barnett is in town to perform the "1812," which he did last night and will Sunday at Wolf Trap with the National Symphony under Mstislav Rostropovich. It is not his first solo engagement with the orchestra and its music director and will be one of 15 solo appearences he will make this season, with such other orchestras as the Cleveland, the Minnesota, the St. Louis and the Chicago.
Barnett said in an interview that he didn't really set out to be a musician. First he was an Indiana state trooper, then an English teacher and finally he went into the antique replica weapons business, "serving the needs of model-makers, restorers, and other serious students of antique firearms and ordnance," as well as the needs of symphony orchestras. "It was a hobby that just got out of hand," Barnett said. "I was introduced to muzzle loading when I was about 20."
Barnett, 48, said that becoming a virtuoso of the cannon and touring the concert circuit with his artillery for the Tchaikovsky was not his idea. "In 1967 Erich Kunzel was conducting the '1812' out of doors with the Cincinnati orchestra and he contacted the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association and they sent him to me"--to Barnett's firm, South Bend Replicas Inc., of South Bend, Ind. Each year since then Barnett's summer solo engagements have increased steadily, he said. "Everybody is playing the '1812' these days."
Each gun weighs 175 pounds, for a total of 2,800 pounds, and each is ignited by "black powder; don't write gunpowder," Barnett said. He transports them in a small truck and trailer. Lyle cannons were invented for the Navy in 1878.
Barnett lined up his cannons on the lawn at Wolf Trap yesterday, aimed presumably in a harmless direction. "No one has ever been hurt by a performance," he noted proudly.
Tchaikovsky's virtuosity as an orchestrator is legendary in music circles, and Barnett has come to admire the composer's craftsmanship with the cannon. "I doubt that he knew much about cannons or about electricity, but apparently he obtained excellent technical advice. He specified that there should be an electrical board just like the one I use. I think he planned to set off the cannons himself while he was conducting. But I think that's a mistake. At the points in the score where the guns are fired, the conductor is too preoccupied with other things. It's better for me to do it, like a percussionist."
Barnett feels that he has refined his interpretation of the "1812" over the years. "There's more precision. I've learned that since I'm often about 170 feet away from the orchestra I have to allow for a sixteenth to an eighth of a second time lag to be on the beat."
The Tchaikovsky is the only piece Barnett plays although he has given thought to expanding his repertoire. He considered playing Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory," but decided against it because "it's not as good a piece."
So far as the touring "1812" cannon solo business is concerned, Barnett thinks he has a monopoly. "As far as I know I don't have any rival," he noted with satisfaction. That's certainly more than Serkin, Perlman or Rampal can claim.