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A percussionist comes home with his tenure and world premiere


Josh Jones will let the timpani do the talking when he premieres Augusta Read Thomas’s “Illuminations” on Monday.

Thomas’ work, which he calls “the gratitude fanfare” with solo timpani, includes words of gratitude among its main themes. Opening ta-taaaa The woodwind movement played by DePaul University Wind Ensemble students is a musical “thank you.” A few bars later, Jones comes in, his rhythm mimicking the syllables of the phrase “We give you our thanks.”

This “gratitude” motif morphs over and over again throughout the 10-minute fanfare. No two phrases are the same, so naturally Jones won’t play them the same way. At the first rehearsal, Jones probed Thomas about the staccato markings of the score. Where did he want a staccato touch, a short, rapid attack on the drum head? Where could he ask for a long staccato – pressing the ringing instrument with his fingers?

“What I like about Thomas’ piece, and what I’m seeing more of in modern music now, is that he brings a lot of vocal communication elements into the score,” Jones says. “It really humanizes percussion, for lack of a better term. “This makes me feel less like a ‘noise maker’.”

These days, Jones adds his own gratitude to Thomas’ fanfare. He started as principal percussionist at the Grant Park Music Festival; It’s a job that brought him to Chicago after the Kansas City Symphony controversially rejected the same position earlier this year. The Nov. 13 premiere also brings Jones back to his alma mater, DePaul University; He once played here with conductor Erica Neidlinger, a devotee of the piece.

“Without him, I wouldn’t be the musician I am today. “I think about him now whenever I practice because he would always tell me to get to the core of the sound,” says Jones. “I’m happy to show my gratitude to Dr. Neidlinger by playing timpani with him again.”

Jones’ earliest musical memories are not just auditory but also tactile. Growing up in Englewood, then South Chicago, he remembers how the plastic sticks of his first “instrument,” a toy Mickey Mouse drum set, felt in his hands; the set was partly a Christmas gift, partly a strategy to get the toddler to stop stealing pots and pans. By the age of five, Jones had begun to acquire a real drum kit, playing at church services all day. That experience, along with an excellent music program at the Beasley Academic Center in nearby Washington Park (Blue Note vibraphonist Joel Ross and his twin brother Josh, who performed at the local drum station, were classmates) paved the way for Jones to join the band. The Chicago Symphony Percussion Scholarship Program is administered by CSO percussionist Patricia Dash of the Lyric Opera and Grant Park orchestras and her husband, Douglas Waddell.

After reviewing applications, Dash and Waddell typically sit down with potential students for a meeting. Jones’ interview when he was around 10 made a special impression on Dash: he walked in wearing a “baggy tuxedo” and aced all the math and rhythm tests.

“I couldn’t fool him. “He walked in with colors flying,” he recalls.

Now Jones is technically Waddell’s boss as principal percussionist of the Grant Park Festival Orchestra; This is a much more onerous task than picnickers realize. As manager, Jones is responsible for making track assignments to sectionmates and renting instruments. Sometimes the job requires sonic sleuthing; especially in Grant Park, whose repertoire can be as new to musicians as to audiences. For example, in preparation for William Dawson’s rarely performed “Negro Folk Symphony,” Jones listened to the recordings again to decide exactly which instrument to order for the second movement, in which a church bell with an indistinct pitch rings at the back of the stage.

“It looks very simple on paper, but in practice you have to find a way for everyone to communicate, from the personnel manager to the stage crew,” says Jones.

That’s not counting the most obvious part: learning the music.

“Grant Park is a challenge: eight shuttles a week with two different schedules. But Josh is very good. His playing on instruments is unique, especially his playing on the snare drum, his technique is better than anyone I have ever seen. My jaw drops when I watch it,” says Waddell.

For Jones, being hired in Grant Park was a particular relief after his experience in Kansas City. After being denied tenure, Jones, who is black, accused the orchestra of racial discrimination. next interviews With publications based in Kansas City.

Tenure in many American orchestras is inherently contentious. recent denial of tenure To the NGO’s former chief officer, David Cooper. Add the possibility of bias to the mix and already uncertain employment decisions become even worse. In 1974, a committee of San Francisco Symphony musicians denied tenure to timpanist Elayne Jones and bassoonist Ryohei Nakagawa, against the advice of then-music director Seiji Ozawa; Jones, who died last yearsued the orchestra for racial discrimination. Oboist Alex Klein, who recently returned to the CSO as principal after being diagnosed with focal dystonia, considered legal action for obstructing the orchestra. Declined tenure in 2017.

Despite his experience in Kansas City, Jones will likely audition again when his old position becomes available; full-time orchestra jobs, let alone directorships, are rarely vacant. Health care also remains a priority: Jones was diagnosed with cancer shortly after joining the Calgary Philharmonic in 2018. He now has a clean bill of health but lives in constant fear of recurrence.

“It wouldn’t be my first choice. But it also wouldn’t be my first choice. to be a choice,” Jones says. “Everything is negotiable. … If they asked me back, I would have a very long conversation with my partner and a lot of other people.”

Since Grant Park’s season ended, Jones has been watching auditions while appearing as a section player in orchestras. He’s also writing a series of books about percussion technique—half of it, fifth in line—and teaches intermittently, often as a clinician or master class instructor.

Meanwhile, “Illuminations” gives hometown audiences the opportunity to hear Jones in the spotlight rather than stuck against the back wall of the Pritzker Pavilion band.

“Technically I’m a soloist, but I never think of myself that way. “I always want to be collaborative, even in the concertos I play with orchestras,” says Jones. “I’m mostly always in a supporting role. My voice is just a little louder.”

“Illuminations” with Ensemble 20+ on Nov. 13 at 8 p.m., Gannon Concert Hall, DePaul University, 804 W. Belden Ave.; free; For RSVP and more information: depaul.edu.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.


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