Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hammer time at L.A. Philharmonic !!!

Los Angeles Philharmonic percussionist Perry Dreiman offers a demonstration.

A 25-pound mallet helps make the perfect thud in Mahler's Sixth Symphony.
By David Mermelstein
February 7, 2008

Rarely does chopping wood or smashing rocks count as orchestra practice. But when the piece in question is Gustav Mahler's mighty Symphony No. 6, pretty much anything goes, at least for percussionists.

The symphony, first performed in 1906, is not Mahler's longest -- the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth all surpass it -- but it may require the most stamina for the percussionist delivering its defining hammer blows.

That's right: hammer blows, like the kind that ring bells on high strikers at carnivals.

Midway through the final movement, an enormous hammer delivers two thwacks -- Alma Mahler said her husband described them as blows of fate. Enhanced by timpani and bass drum, they are among the most dramatic moments in all symphonic music.

"I should probably go work out at the gym," Los Angeles Philharmonic percussionist Perry Dreiman said the other day. That's because he's the designated hitter, so to speak, for the orchestra's performances this weekend of the Sixth, to be conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Dreiman, a strapping 6 feet 5, also wielded the hammer when the Philharmonic last performed the work -- in December 2003, soon after Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, with Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium. In fact, Dreiman has struck the blows every time the orchestra has played the symphony since he joined it in 1985.

Yet what may at first seem like the ultimate kick in classical music turns out to be a complicated affair. First, there's the issue of the right smack.

"Mahler writes that it should sound like the blow of an ax, not like a hammer on a piece of iron," Eschenbach said by phone from Paris last week. "It should sound damp but loud, without any resonance, like a very loud thud."

And securing an object to produce that sound? That has forced orchestras around the world to act creatively. In the case of the Philharmonic, Dreiman arrived with his own hammer -- something he crafted during his days as a student at the Aspen Music Festival.

"It was constructed from an ax handle topped by a block of pine measuring 5 by 7 inches," he said, displaying it, Paul Bunyan-like, in Disney Hall's backstage percussion room.

At his first chance to use the hammer in his new job, however, in April 1987, Dreiman was thwarted -- by no less than Simon Rattle, now chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Actually, all concerned decided that Dreiman's modified ax just wasn't loud enough.

Finding a solution fell to Michael Nutt, a now-retired Philharmonic violinist with a knack for invention. "He liked to dabble making things for the percussion section," Dreiman recalled. "He made whips and bell plates for us. And he was instrumental in creating the second-generation hammer, which resembled a pile driver."

That fearsome instrument, more than 4 1/2 feet long, consisted of a 3-by-7 beam with a horizontal dowel serving as its handle. Alas, it worked a little too well. "It was so powerful it shattered the podium it struck," Dreiman said.

But it sure pleased Rattle, who inscribed its black surface in silver ink with these words: "I suppose I still owe you one more stroke per night. . . . Many thanks and much love in Mahleria."

The remark isn't quite as strange as it sounds. It refers to Mahler's decision when he published the score to reduce the number of hammer blows to two from three -- a choice that retains an air of mystery given the composer's preoccupation with premonitions and death.

"He cut the third blow when he was writing the Eighth Symphony," Eschenbach said, "because he didn't believe any more in that final blow. Unfortunately, he didn't write about why. But scholars think that in writing the positive messages contained in the Eighth Symphony, he no longer wanted a final, fateful blow."

As to creating the blows, the Philharmonic's current solution came during Tilson Thomas' 2003 visit.

"Michael came with his own vision," said Dreiman. "He didn't go for the pile driver." Having recorded the symphony with his own orchestra in San Francisco two years before, the conductor had strong feelings about the matter and suggested that the Philharmonic examine his solution, an enormous mallet once used to secure the stakes of circus tents.

Tom Hemphill, a longtime percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony, had found the hammer at a salvage shop in Northern California. For performances, he'd slam it on a large plywood box, with a hole cut out to amplify the sound and prevent the box from exploding.

Plans were faxed from San Francisco, and the Philharmonic's carpenters copied the box and the hammer.

Mounted on short legs, the Philharmonic's box, made of white ash, stands 5 feet 2 and is 3 feet deep and 7 feet across. The sound hole has an 18-inch diameter. Because of the box's size, the percussionist must mount three steps to strike it properly.

The new hammer, which Dreiman says weighs about 25 pounds, consists of an ax handle topped by a cylindrical head, its pieces laminated and secured by metal bands. "You don't want it breaking apart and flying into the audience," Dreiman said.

Indeed, before a performance, he makes a point of addressing audience members sitting close: "I tell them, 'Don't be alarmed, but I'm going to get up and whale on this thing a couple times.' "


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