The word percussion comes from the Latin word percussionem, meaning 'to strike.' But as WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, playing percussion in a symphony orchestra also requires rhythm, musicality, and physical grace.
Percussion instruments can keep the beat, but they also add color. Angela Zator Nelson is The Philadelphia Orchestra’s associate principal timpani and a member of the percussion section.
AZN: A single cymbal bash, or single triangle... that’s not adding any rhythm, but a splash of color. You have to make sure that the note is perfectly on time and the perfect sound...
SL: Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, written in 1944, uses bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam (which is a big gong), tambourine, triangle, and woodblock.
AZN: A lot of rhythmic elements...especially in snare drum...a lot of color with bass drum...a lot of highlights from cymbals. Prokofiev is very specific about sounds...
SL: Percussion players make hundreds of choices, even in striking a bass drum.
AZN: Where on the drum will we play? Towards the center, towards the rim? A thinner sound, a deeper sound? Also our stroke - will we play through the head? Will we make a staccato sound and dampen the bass drum? There’s more than people realize, but as long as we’re matching the sound of the orchestra, we’re doing our jobs correctly.
SL: There’s also a theatrical element, especially when a musician must move between instruments – it's all, she says, part of the fun.
AZN: Figuring out the puzzle of where to go next.. and how to get there.. we’re trying to be graceful, making sure we get to our parts on time.
SL: With composers continuing to incorporate new sounds into their music, today there are hundreds of percussive instruments to be learned and played.
You'll also hear Chris Devinny, principal percussion, playing snare drum, Tony Orlando on cymbals, and Alan Abel (former principal percussion of The Philadelphia Orchestra) on triangle, tambourine, and wood block. Also on the program is Stravinsky's Symphony in C and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. Valery Gergiev conducts.