With mallets toward all
Timpanist Joseph Pereira was in the kitchen, preparing to marinate short ribs in French wine, when he made an important discovery: That nice plastic cork at the top of the wine bottle had a terrific consistency.
It wasn’t long before Pereira, who has long customized his instruments, was experimenting with the plastic cork inside the end of his drum mallets. “I cut the top part off and wrapped it for a new stick, which I use every week,” says the musician and composer. “It has a really warm tone to it.”
His compositions also come from unlikely sources. Ideas for Pereira’s double-bass quartet, which premiered last month at Walt Disney Concert Hall, drew on both “The Godfather: Part II” and Canto 20 from Dante’s Purgatorio. His new concerto for percussion and chamber orchestra, premiering Tuesday night with Gustavo Dudamel at the podium, was inspired in part by his reading about Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean.
Dark and handsome, Pereira looks like a drummer but talks like a scholar. He is serious about his craft, which he knows doesn’t always get enough respect as serious musicianship. “There is a lot of creativity and exploration in sound that we have to do for percussion,” he says. “It’s not just two plates of metal or drums and sticks. You have to work hard at it, or you deserve all the bad jokes like: Will the musicians and the percussionists go onstage.”
He certainly has worked hard. The Queens-born Pereira joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 as principal timpanist after more than 10 years with the New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant principal timpanist and section percussionist. Other musicians still talk about how Pereira, now 37, auditioned for and got the New York job at 23 while still studying at the Juilliard School. (He completed his master’s in percussion at Juilliard part time while playing in the N.Y. Philharmonic.)
He’s still working hard, both off and onstage. Timpanists almost exclusively play big copper drums, but what covers and what hits those drums varies from player to player. Pereira’s instruments are nearly all custom-made, generally with imported materials, and many are made by Pereira himself. The top of his drums is calfskin from Ireland, which he buys in rolls, then soaks in water and dries for three days. He puts the skins on the German-made drums himself, tightening and tuning to get the sounds he wants.
His mallets, or drumsticks, are made of bamboo from China, crafted for him by JG Percussion in San Diego. Company founder and owner Jason Ginter recalls that he sent Pereira a Facebook message about his products a few years ago, and the two met at a cafe in Los Angeles. They dumped a few dozen mallets on the table, he says, “and then we started talking about the sounds we wanted to create. That was his goal -- to create sounds that weren’t currently available.”
Starting with his flexible bamboo sticks, which he likens to violin bows, Pereira customizes the heads with a variety of materials, including not just cork but also rubber, wood, felt, leather and flannel to make them softer or harder. “It’s all about the weights, which are crucial. With timpani, it’s not just the sound but also getting the right color to fit the character of the music you’re playing.”
As Disney Hall concertgoers know, Pereira and his timpani are usually at the back of the stage, dead center. “There’s this saying that the timpani is like the backbone or second conductor as far as rhythm is concerned,” he says. “I think that’s why I’m straight in the back, like a baseball catcher, where I can hear and see everything.”
Orchestra colleague Christopher Hanulik, the L.A. Philharmonic’s principal bassist, agrees. “A good timpanist can provide a fabulous foundation for the orchestra in terms of sound, timing and rhythm,” says Hanulik. “It can really help in terms of stabilizing the orchestra, and many times we use Joe to play off of.”
It was Hanulik who commissioned Pereira to write the amplified double-bass quartet that premiered here last month, turning the basses into instruments that sounded like electric guitars. “He is an interesting writer,” says Hanulik. “He could draw out some effects that a lot of composers don’t take full advantage of.”
Pereira started composing as an undergraduate at Boston University, where he received a bachelor’s degree with a double major in performance and composition/theory. Besides his recent pieces for percussion and double bass, he writes music for a variety of instruments, including winds, English horn and cello. His violin solo was just recorded at Disney Hall, and due out soon is a recording for flute and dumbek, a hand drum.
Composing as well as playing here attracted Pereira to Los Angeles. “The environment that exists in the L.A. Philharmonic enables me to be creative as both an orchestral musician and a composer,” says the musician. “The two timpanists before me, William Kraft and Mitchell Peters, were important composers, and I feel like I’m meant to continue in their legacy.”
Colin Currie, the prominent Scottish percussionist who will play Pereira’s percussion premiere next week, calls it “a very bold work. Joe has such a questioning mind about the relationships between sounds, I think the piece will have beauty, mystery and wonder. It’s atmospheric, crystalline and very dancey. He also sent over 40 minutes of video lecture on how to achieve certain of the sound effects, which is a first in my experience. But it is very helpful.”
Pereira, after all, started out playing marimba, xylophone and other percussive instruments featured in the piece when he was with the New York Philharmonic. While he still gets to play and teach percussion at Juilliard as well as USC, where he runs USC Thornton School of Music’s percussion department, his Los Angeles Philharmonic position has him playing strictly timpani at most Philharmonic concerts.
The lure of playing percussion is one reason he’s often performing at the orchestra’s Green Umbrella new music series where, he explains, “anything goes.” In 2010, for instance, Pereira appeared onstage bare-chested and barefoot to perform composer Vinko Globokar’s “Corporel for Solo Percussion,” in which the musician uses his own body as a drum. Pereira also recalls a piece by Unsuk Chin that included his dropping 500 grains of rice on a snare drum as a crescendo. “I didn’t rehearse that part,” he confides. “I didn’t want to clean it up.”