Hiawatha – praise for percussion from composer, Robert Hanson

Hiawatha – praise for percussion from composer, Robert Hanson

On 1 May, 2016 the Kapiti Chorale performed Robert Hanson’s (Chicago, USA) ‘epic oratorio’, Hiawatha, based on Longfellow’s poem, Song of Hiawatha. This involved an orchestra of 25 or so including four percussionists.  These were Doreen Douglas (Levin) , Kevin Mason (USA), Martyn Smith (Wellington), and myself (also Wellington).  There were 16 percussion instruments indicated in the score, and all but the ‘wind machine’ were able to be sourced for the performance. Chorale director, Eric Sidoti, somehow managed to find an authentic indian drum in New Zealand.

As we didn’t know how many percussionists we were going to have until late, it was difficult to plan assignments; three players could not cover all the parts. We did source a fourth player with about three weeks to go and I took the responsibility (out of fear of confusion and embarrassment if I had not had a ‘plan’ to work with) to unpack the Perc1 and Perc2 scores so that most all could be covered by three players, complimenting Doreen on the timpani score.  I included the indian drum part, perhaps technically the easiest to play yet so prominent visually, in my own assignments.

To make a long story short, the performance was a success all round with the composer in attendance from the States. Dr. Hanson told us directly after the concert that we percussionists were “artist percussionists” – high praise to my mind.

Then a few days after the performance Dr. Hanson sent a note to Eric. Quoting the e-mail from Eric:

Dick, Doreen, Kevin and Martyn,

 To the terrific percussion section from Hiawatha – thank you again for all the work you did, and the stellar playing at the concert on Sunday. A number of people commented to me on how great the percussion was, and today I received the best compliment yet, from Bob Hanson himself – “This was the best percussion section of all the Hiawatha performances. The Indian Drum was perfect and he played so tastefully.”

So well done to all of you! A performance each of you can be especially proud of.

Kind regards,




For the record, here is a bit more detail:

Seeing the scores for the first time months before the performance it was evident a massive amount of percussion equipment would be required. Where would we get it all?  Doreen and I saw what we could each provide but much more was needed.  Kevin had been recruited early on recommendation from Alec Carlisle.  Kevin had professional experience in the States but was on temporary assignment to Australasia by his employer and had no gear in NZ.  We had to go to Jeremy Fitzsimmons and his rental percussion business for much of it including a vibraphone – an extra expense which Eric had not realized, I think.

Doreen mentioned early on that she was ‘terrified’ of the piece, but I took that to mean she was aware of unknowns rather than any lack of confidence in her ability to play it. Kevin nonchalantly turned up at the first rehearsal and sight read from both Perc1 and Perc2 scores and confirmed the thought that we were in luck.

But we still didn’t have a fourth player. As we had only three rehearsals scheduled this was potentially a problem.  We might have to make due with some parts uncovered; a recording of a previous performance of the piece evidenced some parts being left out.  That first rehearsal we covered only the first four movements; the other four movements would be rehearsed in the second rehearsal.  The third and final rehearsal would be the day before the concert (“dress rehearsal”).

Soon after the first rehearsal Martyn volunteered to join us having been asked by me but also having talked with Kevin as they are currently both playing for the Wellington Brass, Australasian brass band champion of 2015. At the second rehearsal, just 10 days before the concert (and without Kevin who was on work assignment in Australia), Martyn began visualizing what he could add.  He and Wellington Brass had some instruments which would be concert class and could upgrade some of the ‘this will do’ equipment we had collected up til then. He suggested he might have a snare drum stand big enough to mount the indian drum to let it’s best reverb out when appropriate (very successful it was).

During this period I spent hours frantically scouring the Perc1 and Perc2 scores to see who would be able to cover which part without moving around too much.   I sent two drafts out to the players which they calmly perused when they had a chance.

Fortunately, Doreen could take care of everything on the Timp part as long as she had her home made rute, a triangle, wind chimes and a suspended cymbal to herself, along with the timps and crotales.   In the end, I decided I would also need my own triangle, suspended cymbal , rute, and maracas to go with the indian drum and tam tam.   Martyn and Kevin also needed their own suspended cymbal, triangle, rute, and maracas to go with the vibes, xylophone, glock, bass drum, snare drum, ratchet, crash cymbals (and what else have I forgotten already) which they would need to share.

When we got to the venue at the little Paraparaumu College auditorium (approx. 250 seating) for the Saturday rehearsal we found that Doreen could set up her timps, etc in the back corner (stage left). Eric insisted that the indian drum be prominently placed on the edge where all in the audience could see it.  Kevin and Martyn stretched everything else in an arc from my area toward the back of the orchestra in front of the timps.  What a look!

The Chorale has a strong local following and on concert day, Sunday, the place was packed. A group of 8 or 10 were seated in the other back corner (stage right) tucked behind the children’s choir, and a few late comers were seated just outside the auditorium with the door open.   After Carole thanked all the sponsors who had helped with the professional singers (8!), the expenses for the orchestra, publicity, and rentals of the hall and percussion equipment, we began.

The performance was not perfect but went very well. Admittedly the parts generally were not technically difficult; the timps perhaps the most challenging.  But dealing with all that music in only three rehearsals was indeed impressive.  What performance highlights were there for me?  I liked the sound of the indian drum.   I was still coming to grips with the variety of sounds it could produce and apply at various stages of this huge work; two more rehearsals I might have ‘become’ the drum.  Martyn’s control, accuracy and sense of its purpose on a ‘pp’ snare drum part in the second half was riveting to me (a snare drummer myself).    And throughout I could sense the appreciation the section had of the place of each instrument at each moment.

I felt stressed through the development and rehearsal process, but it was a satisfying experience in its fruition. Thanks especially to Eric, Doreen, Kevin and Martyn.

The singers and orchestra should be complimented as well, but clearly I have focused on the percussion in this piece; I hope not too much.

Richard Keller

06 May, 2016


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