Here’s Part Two of my interview with Raynor Carroll, the Principal Percussionist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who’ll retire after tonight’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl. (Part One can be found HERE).
In this part, he talks about:
- Matthew Howard, the musician taking over his orchestra chair once he steps down
- The challenges of attracting young African-Americans to orchestral music
- His post-retirement plans
- Memories of conductors with whom he’s worked while at the LA Phil
- and more
CKDH: This orchestra plays more music by written by living composers and music of the last half-century than just about any other. And not everyone has to participate in the Green Umbrella new music series, but you do. I’d love to hear about the role contemporary music plays in your life.
RC: It’s been said that the featured instrument in the 18th Century was the violin, in the 19th Century the piano, and in the 20th Century it’s percussion. There’s so many possibilities for us. I think it’s vital to include composers of the time into your programming. That means a lot more work for us, but it’s the essence of the times we live in.
It’s, again, another challenge. The parts are usually/often very difficult. They can be difficult in just the set-up even when the parts themselves aren’t hard to play. You might have to figure out how to play a bongo, then hit a marimba, then have to hit the glockenspiel. There’s not one mallet you can use for everything, so you have to figure out all these logistical things out. It’s a challenge, but again, I’d rather do this than any other thing.
It’s great and I think it’s such a vital part of what we do, 20th and 21st Century music. It’s a necessity.
Now, there are good pieces, and there are bad pieces. That is to say, there are works where you’ll spend hours and hours practicing, then at performance, you’re like “Oh my gosh.” [Scrunching his face in seeming anguish] But then there are the others which are really worthwhile.
CKDH: There are a lot of cool works featuring solo percussion with orchestra, and there have been some great musicians that have come through to play those solos: Steven Schick, Evelyn Glennie, Martin Grubinger, to name just a few. A lot of the other principals or section players in the LA Phil play concertos, but I don’t really see you or the other guys from the section up there in front of the orchestra. What’s up with that?
RC: It’s never been my passion to be a soloist. I just love sitting in the back and playing, doing my part. Other principals and section players might enjoy, from time to time, being a soloist. I don’t get a particular thrill out of that. I don’t go to administration suggesting a solo I want to do.
I had my one chance this year. We did the Messiaen, From the Canyons to the Stars [Des canyons aux étoiles]. We did that in London, and I’m in front. That’s fine. Once every five years or so is fine. [Laughs] I don’t really need to do that.
CKDH: Please tell me about your composing and your publishing company, Batterie Music.
RC: It’s mainly pedagogic. I’ve got a series of books, a timpani method book and some repertoire books. When I was growing up, when you were preparing for an audition or working on a piece for school, there was no material and it was hard to get the music back then. Whereas for all the other music, we didn’t.
So back in the 90’s, I just started publishing for each percussion instrument, and they’ve thankfully been very successful. The impetus was because there was this need in the percussion world, and that’s one of things I want to continue to do more of [once I’m retired]. For the past few years, I’ve wanted to do that but just haven’t been able to do because of the time. I enjoy doing it and I get a lot of feedback from other percussionists, some of whom say, “We use your book onstage instead of the actual music.” [Laughing]
CKDH: So is that why you’re retiring now? You’re not really old and at what most people would consider “retirement age.”
RC: Well, it’s all relative. To me, that’s my point. I’m not that old, so I can do some other things before I am too old to do them. I love traveling, and it just gets a little more difficult when you’re older to do a 21-hour trip to Bali, for example. It’ll be easier now than when I’m, say, 70.
You know, I’ve been in the orchestra for 33 years. That’s a long time to be in one job. Now, our job is unique, it’s different, and I love it. I feel like we’re the luckiest people on the planet. But I’ve been preparing for this for a long time, thinking about what I’m going to do and what the next phase of my life is going to be.
CKDH: And what is the next phase of your life going to be? It sounds like some Batterie Music, some travel . . .
RC: Right, but part of it is that I don’t know yet. We recently redid our yard with drought tolerant plants, and I enjoy working in the yard. I actually made my wife a garden bench and garden table. I never really worked with wood before and it was a lot of fun. So I don’t know, and that’s the exciting part. Another part is researching family ancestry. There’s a lot of things, in addition to a “honey do” list that my wife wants me to do [laughs]. There’s a lot of good stuff.
CKDH: And after you leave, Matthew Howard will take your chair. Can we talk a little bit about your successor?
CKDH: You can obviously relate to him in some ways: being a local boy, growing up with this orchestra, and all of a sudden becoming principal in your 20s.
RC: Oh yeah. You cannot believe how excited myself and my wife were when we heard that he got the gig. She remembers one of the first times he came to our house for a lesson. I think he had just finished college and I think he was at a junior college at the time, before going to USC. And he came for lessons for a summer.
He had his backpack on, full of mallets and music. She remembers that he was so into it and organized, she says like a mini me, but I didn’t say that [laughing]. When we’d spend time together, whatever I’d give him, he’d come the next time totally prepared and eager, like, “What’s next? What have you got for me?!”
Do you remember the movie Up, the animated movie that came out a few years ago? Do you remember Russell, the young “happa” kid in it who had a cap and a backpack? Well, Matthew’s happa, and he’d have a backpack on and a cap on, and he’d came to the door and my wife would say, “Russell’s here!” [laughing].
The years would pass, he was at USC and then he went back east, he would still come and have a lesson here and there when he was in town. He was focused. I don’t always see that in my students and I’ve had many over the years. He was always very focused and knew what he wanted to do. It reminded me of how I was like many years ago.
When I told my wife, she said, “Wow, but I’m not surprised.”
CKDH: Is there any advice you’ve given him?
RC: We had lunch a month or so ago, and there was some advice I gave him about this, that, and the other. He’s just ready to go, but I told him he could call or email if things come up and you’re not sure.
One of his big questions was, “Do you have an inventory of the instruments? I don’t know the name of every single instrument.” He’s worried about what I alluded to earlier, that he’s gotta make a list of every instrument that has to be on stage. I sent him a list, but I also said don’t worry about it: the guys will help you, the crew will help you, and you’ll learn.
He’s great. I think the section will be in good hands.
CKDH: Shifting gears a bit. There aren’t a lot of African-Americans in the orchestra. With you leaving, that’s one fewer. What impact do you think race plays in the classical music world in general and for you in particular as someone who’s been a role model just by your presence in the orchestra?
RC: Yeah, it’s a difficult thing. I said earlier, I think I’m here in part because my dad would play all types of music. So I think exposure is the important thing. I was fortunate to have that, to be in a home where music was so important, and I just latched onto the classical side.
I think that’s what’s missing from society in general [in the US]. You know, we go on tour in Europe and I come back to my room after the concert and there are actually orchestra concerts on TV. It’s just a regular part of their programming, and we don’t really have that. When there’s an orchestra on TV here, it’s a special performance, you know like Great Performances [on PBS], which is good but . . . Also I remember when I was growing up, Boston Pops would be on TV almost every Sunday, so that was an influence on me.
Where do you see it now? It’s not the same. What I was saying about Europe, [classical music] is part of their culture because that’s where it came from. We don’t have the same thing here, so that’s part of the problem. [Pauses to think]
There will be a Raynor pop up here or there because it’s their passion, but to get that exposure at a young age is critical. I don’t know what the answer is to improve the awareness that you can do this job, that it’s not limited to race or whatever, it’s a job that you can do also. You have to make it your drive and your focus, but you can do it. It’s a difficult thing.
CKDH: Given that lack of exposure of classical music to society in general, do you think young African-Americans – or young people of any ethnicity are better accessed via some kind of cross-over or collaboration between classical artists and musicians they have more exposure to? For example, there’s Caroline Shaw and her work with Kanye West. . . .
RC: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a better way. It’s one of the options.
We have done school concerts where we’d go to schools, and more recently since Disney Hall was built, students would come to Disney . . . [pauses to think] . . . Yeah, it’s a tough nut to crack.
I enjoy my teaching in that I feel like I can reach some of those players that possibly might pursue [classical music], but it’s tough. I don’t know what the answer is.
I wish there were more of a pool of players, but there isn’t.
CKDH: Getting back to the orchestra and you retiring. What are you going to miss the most?
RC: The music – being in the music. Obviously, I can still hear The Rite of Spring and [other works], but I won’t be in the middle of the orchestra playing that, which you can’t replace. That I’m definitely going to miss.
I’m not going to miss driving. I’m not going to miss parking at the Bowl [laughs]
CKDH: Are there particular conductors that stick in your mind?
RC: For good or for bad? [Laughing]
CKDH: Well, whatever you want to say . . .
RC: No, I’m just teasing. [Laughing]
Yeah, Esa-Pekka, having worked with him for all those years, he’d probably be at the top of my list. Fine musician, excellent ear and excellent conductor, and great knowledge of percussion, and/or if he didn’t, he’d come to me and ask in his particular way [changes his voice to mimic Salonen], “Do you have a different cymbal? It clashes with this chord,” or whatever else he’d have. I have the utmost respect for him.
Being hired by Carlo Maria Giulini, what can I say. [Smiles and looks off in another direction remembering]. My first season was his last season with the orchestra, unfortunately, so I only got limited concerts with him, but yes, definitely him.
CKDH: Everyone I’ve talked to about him has the same reaction when they mention him. They get the same aura in their face . . .
RC: Yeah, special and unique. Old-school, you’re never going to find anything like him anymore. He didn’t have great baton technique, but the essence of the music was just there. It was just amazing.
CKDH: So when someone doesn’t have great baton technique, it’s harder for everyone in the orchestra, but it seems that it would suck even more for you guys in percussion.
RC: Well, Leonard Bernstein didn’t have great baton technique. But again, the essence of the music . . . He was drenched in sweat, he’d be dancing and jumping on the podium, he was totally into it.
You don’t have to have great baton technique. You could have the other, someone has excellent technique and very clear, absolute metronomic beats, but where’s the music? [shakes his head]
CKDH: Let me throw some names out. Simon Rattle . . .
RC: I wish we’d see him more [smiling]. He’s fantastic. Really enjoyed working with him. Again, he’s a former percussionist, so we’ve related very well. I remember he was conducting Daphnis with us years ago at the Dorothy Chandler. I was playing the snare part. He stops and says, “That’s the perfect drum for this.” He had a keen ear because he was a player too.
CKDH: You sometimes hear of conductors who are violinists micromanaging the bowing or other such things getting into the minutiae. Since he was a percussionist, did he ever get into your business?
RC: Oh no.
CKDH: You mentioned Zubin Mehta having an impact on you.
RC: When I was a kid and you used to come watch the orchestra, he was Music Director so there’s always a special place for Zubin, for those days and those times. I respect what he does and I admire him. We don’t see him enough either.
CKDH: Since we’re on the Music Director carousel, how about Andre Previn?
RC: [Nods] Great musician, didn’t last long here unfortunately. There were a lot of possibilities, but he wasn’t here long enough.
CKDH: And now Gustavo. What’s it been like working with him since he’s become Music Director, going from Esa-Pekka and his Finnish ways to Gustavo and his Venezuelan ways?
RC: I think different repertoire for each. Esa-Pekka was more into the Modern works whereas with Gustavo, it seems that the Romantic works are more his specialty.
Thinking of Leonard Bernstein having passion on the podium: that’s Gustavo.
CKDH: Now thinking about other guest conductors who came through a lot. How about Kurt Sanderling?
RC: Really respected him. He would often tell stories about Shostakovich or different things that happened or things he experienced with composers he interacted with, things that were very enlightening and helpful to us in the orchestra. Again, old school, gone.
CKDH: Of the notable conductors you’re familiar with who didn’t visit L.A., any names stick out that you really wished would have come?
RC: Yeah, I don’t think I ever saw Claudio Abbado. I never saw Sir Georg Solti. There are the two for me. Those are the big names I think of.
CKDH: How about working with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who passed away recently?
RC: He was fun, very fun. He’d always wear that very colorful shirt. [smiling]
I remember the last time I did Bolero was at Disney with Frühbeck. We started rehearsal, and he stopped and he told me to play louder. We did it again, he stopped again and told me to play louder still. Usually, it’s the oppose, they want it really really soft, but he said, “I want the person in the last row to hear.”
And then he told my colleagues, and I wish they’d say this more often: “Listen to the snare drum, play with the snare drum.” You know, I set the rhythm and they all have solos. So the problem for me is when the solos get really flexible with the time. But he said, “No, no, no.” I’ll always remember that from him. I thought, “Yes, finally!”
CKDH: I’m always in awe of you or Perry or whoever is playing the snare on that piece. I can’t imagine how hard it is.
RC: It’s really the first five minutes. The rest of it is fine, getting through the first five minutes with all those very quiet solos is the hard part. After that, it’s fine.
CKDH: Do you plan on coming back to sit in the audience at Disney Hall after you retire?
RC: Well, I won’t the first season, definitely not. After that, it’s a possibility. We’ll see.
- Raynor Carroll portrait in suit with blue tie: courtesy of California State University, Los Angeles
- Exercises, Etudes, and Solos for the Timpani: courtesy of Batterie Music
- Matthew Howard: courtesy of New World Symphony
- Raynor Carroll with cymbals: courtesy of Sabian
- Raynor Carroll sitting with timpani: courtesy of Remo