“My original intention as a percussionist was to find an opportunity to be a soloist. I really wanted to grow a repertoire that didn’t exist.”
With acclaimed performances throughout the world’s most famous venues, Jonathan Haas’s musical career has been an unqualified success. His journey, however, has been anything but scripted; Haas has fought to advance his art.
Haas received his master’s degree from the Julliard School. He was almost barred from a graduation recital because his instrument, the timpani, did not have an established repertoire. Soon after, he applied for a Rockefeller Foundation grant to fund a recital at Carnegie Hall. The application was disqualified on grounds that the timpani was not considered a musical instrument. Refusing defeat, Haas approached the president of the foundation. A masterful performance judged by a panel of experts convinced them that solo percussion was in fact music. Haas won the grant.
As the director of the NYU Classical Percusion Program in Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions, Haas applies his vision to higher education. Haas now presides over the Percussion Penthouse, an open studio loft filled with a world-class collection of percussion instruments. The studio is animated with instruction, rehearsal, small concerts and recitals. Fashioned as a creative sanctuary for his students, the studio is truly a musician’s playground. Haas’s signature is the world’s largest timpani, an instrument he built himself from a 19th century copper kettle used to manufacture cheese. “This is the next generation of musicians who are going to find their own repertoire and further the art. That’s what this room is all about.”
Hailed as “The Paganini of the timpani,” Haas has recorded with such names as Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and on the Grammy Award winning Zappa’s Universe. He’s commissioned dozens of works from world-class composers including the internationally celebrated Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra. Conceived by Haas and composed by Philip Glass, the work has become a rousing success. “I offered him my vision. The concerto itself has truly exceeded all expectations.”
“My students bring such a diversity of interest, which always challenges me to offer them top notch studies both as musicians and intellectuals.” Haas’s program resides at the intersection of music, theatre, and technology. His students recently hosted the Percussive Art Society Conference at NYU, an event comprising more than 1200 international percussionists over 3 days.
A true virtuoso, Haas continues to pursue classical concertos, jazz, rock, and world music. His experimental compositions transcend the confines of genre. Haas has revolutionized the musical landscape for percussionists who follow in his footsteps. “There’s a visual aspect to percussion. You can feel it, and you can hear it. It’s a full body experience, and audiences respond.”
By Jason Mena