PAS Hall of Fame

Frank Epstein

 by Rick Mattingly

Frank EpsteinUpon entering Le Conte Junior High School in Los Angeles, Frank Epstein applied to the school orchestra—but not as a percussionist. He wished to be a pianist. “Since there were five of us pianists, it was suggested that three of us play percussion,” Epstein recalls. “The conductor—who was an oboist—stuck a pair of snare sticks in my hand and showed me how to hold them. He then showed me the ‘daddy-mama’ roll, and then he directed me to go to the other side of the orchestra, and then later to go home and practice that roll—on the floor!

“I continued practicing and progressing during my junior high school days and ended up playing timpani for the graduation exercises. I was quite proud to have made it that far. I joined the Fairfax High School Orchestra as a percussionist, and after attending the Idyllwild School of Music, a summer music program at the time run by the University of Southern California, I met my future drum teacher there and remained a pupil of educator, percussionist, timpanist, and sophist Robert Sonner, who pushed me on for the rest of my career.”

That career included being a percussionist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 2011, being on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center and the New England Conservatory of Music, where he founded the NEC Percussion Ensemble, founding the Collage New Music Ensemble, and authoring Cymbalisms, A Complete Guide for the Orchestral Cymbal Player.

Epstein was born in Amsterdam, Holland on May 7, 1942. His family emigrated to the United States in 1952, taking residence in Hollywood, California. After graduating from high school, Epstein attended the University of Southern California (USC), where he says his “real education” began. He continued studying with Sonner, and while enrolled in a five-year program also studied percussion with Los Angeles Philharmonic percussionist and timpanist Bill Kraft, drum set with John De Soto, mallets with Earl Hatch, and snare drum with Murray Spivack. “I had at least four lessons a week and practiced nonstop,” Epstein says, “and I played gigs at night with community orchestras in the L.A. area—the Pasadena Symphony, the Compton Symphony, the Santa Monica Symphony, the West End Symphony, and several others. In later years I played the Laguna Opera festival, culminating with playing extra with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Of course, the USC school orchestra was very fine, as was its wind ensemble, and the opera program was especially strong. I also played in the USC Marching Band and played for two Rose Bowl Parades and games. Whenever USC was not in the Rose Bowl, the marching band played in the Disneyland Toy Parade, outfitted like a toy drum and bugle corps. We were outfitted in uniforms made from fiberglass—about the most uncomfortable product out there! Our uniform covered us from top to bottom and featured a one-piece hat and head, with two little holes to look out and a bigger one for breathing. We marched three or four times a day, and one day I found myself walking right past Mr. Dwight Eisenhower, the President of the United States!”

He also attended the Tanglewood Music Center in 1962, 1966, and 1967. After receiving his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Southern California, Epstein played with the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra for two seasons as assistant timpanist and percussionist. “The highlight for me was just performing with a professional orchestra on a daily basis,” Epstein says. “The orchestra played all the repertoire, lots of school concerts, and a full opera season. I enjoyed absolutely everything. I remember a concert with Andre Previn. He was not entirely happy with my snare drum playing and made several comments. Years later when Previn was conducting the Boston Symphony in Japan, I ran into him in the Osaka Hotel elevator, and I reminded him of the San Antonio event. He didn’t remember, but he very nicely apologized! Mostly I remember the full-scale opera productions we put on in San Antonio. Rehearsals would often go past midnight and last at least five hours. And I will never forget a wonderful performance of Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’—not an opera, of course—with dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company.”

In 1968, while a first-year graduate student at the New England Conservatory, where he studied with Everett “Vic” Firth, Epstein auditioned for and won a section percussion position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he remained for 43 years, retiring in 2011. What were the highlights? “There were too many performances to consider,” he says. “Perhaps concerts with Colin Davis, who was a real gentleman. Colin brought some unique British repertoire, including Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius,’ the Elgar symphonies, music of Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett, and a lovely performance of Debussy’s ‘La Mer,’ for which he approached me during the intermission of a New York tour to compliment me personally.”

Epstein also performed with the Boston Pops for many years, starting when Arthur Fiedler was the conductor. “Fiedler was sort of a tyrant on stage, but he was a pretty fun guy off stage,” Epstein recalls. “He liked to drink beer and kept a fresh barrel of it in his dressing room every night. One time, during a piece that featured a four-bar silence, without thinking, I threw my tambourine into the air. It went straight up and came straight down, right into my hand, where I continued the backbeat I had been doing before. When I realized what I had done, I looked around in all directions, but it appeared no one had seen me do it. However, when I stepped off stage at intermission, I heard, ‘Frank Epstein, please come to the conductor’s room’ over the intercom. My heart stopped—I was a relatively new player at the time—and I slowly made my way over. As I approached the room, the door was wide open and Fiedler, with beer in hand, motioned me in. He said, ‘Epstein, I like what you did there.’ I thanked him but promised myself to not ever do that again. I think Fiedler actually enjoyed a bit of fooling around during the Pops, as long as it was in relatively good taste.

“I also enjoyed my years with John Williams immensely. The early years were a bit rough, but once John found his way, so much wonderful music, including film music, came our way. John has a real fine taste for percussion. He wants it bright and tight and always asked us to use small snare drums, small triangles, and small tambourines. He wrote many a good cymbal part, so he obviously likes cymbals as well.”

Epstein became a faculty member at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he headed the percussion department for over 20 years. He also joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory (NEC) in 1968, where he later served as Chairman of the Brass and Percussion Departments for 25 years. “I worked with really fine students at both institutions,” he says. “I had the pleasure of working with the most talented at Tanglewood, where standards have been high for many years. I remember a couple of students who had difficulty getting along with others for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to not liking a certain kind of repertoire. These same folks had serious difficulties in their professional life as well. Despite their considerable talents, their attitude, professionalism, and working with others was learned slowly. I have had some wonderful students at the conservatory as well, and I still keep up with a few of them. It’s fun to be able to relate to them as students and then as adults.”

During his first year at New England Conservatory, Epstein founded the NEC Percussion Ensemble. “I was introduced to the percussion ensemble at USC when Bill Kraft led the ensemble,” Epstein explains. “Bill eventually founded the L.A. Percussion Ensemble, which was a professional group—perhaps among the first of its kind. I enjoyed some fine work with them. I have always enjoyed percussion ensemble as an opportunity to play chamber music. Even though most pieces are conducted, playing in the ensemble represents a kind of performance that, while it requires solo play with one person on a part, listening to others is crucial and all important. You must listen much harder and rely on your ears and musical intuition almost immediately for the ensemble to be a success.”

Epstein is especially proud that he and the NEC Percussion Ensmble premiered and commissioned over 50 works. “Perhaps the best thing that came along was an opportunity to commission 10 pieces, all to be performed and recorded. Those pieces came out as American Music for Percussion in two volumes on the Naxos label, and they include works by Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Joan Tower, Jennifer Higdon, Elliot Carter, Robert Rodriguez, Peter Child, Edward Cohen, and Fred Lerdahl. We are currently involved in another Naxos project, this time featuring works for violin and percussion orchestra. This project will feature Lou Harrison’s classic ‘Music for Violin and Percussion Orchestra,’ another piece of Robert Rodriguez for violin and percussion—which has been premiered and recorded—and a violin concerto by Kati Agocs, which we will record this year or next. All three are fabulous pieces, all loosely based on the original Lou Harrison concerto.”

Epstein has recorded with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and Boston Pops, as well as with Collage New Music, a contemporary music ensemble he founded in 1972, and of which he served as music director for its first 20 years. As music director of Collage, Epstein oversaw the commissioning and performance of over 200 new works, many written specifically for the ensemble. During this time, Collage also produced 17 recordings, on which Epstein both performed and acted as producer. In 1996, he was awarded a Presidential Commendation from the New England Conservatory for his work with Collage New Music.

“Shortly after attending Tanglewood Music Center in the early ’60s, I was introduced to not only new music but also to contemporary chamber music,” Epstein explains. “I found the experience riveting, exhilarating, and challenging. I had never done anything like it before, having focused my energies almost exclusively on orchestral music and orchestral performance. So shortly after I joined the BSO, I set out to start a new-music ensemble. Collage New Music was founded, incorporated, and has been performing an annual season of three or four concerts ever since. We initially performed at the Museum of Fine Art Contemporary Gallery. I remember a performance with jazz trumpeter Clark Terry there, and a recording with him in New York after a performance at the Guggenheim Museum. This season is our 48th. We still commission new works and present music exclusively of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

In addition to his roles as performer, conductor, and teacher, Epstein has been involved with instrument design, starting with his Symphonic Castanets, of which there are three models. He also offers a Lucite castanet machine and two models of castanet carrying cases. “I have been doing castanets for over 50 years!” Epstein says. “I fell in love with a castanet maker in Los Angeles—Mrs. Goni, the lady with the dancing eyes, as I remember her today. She made fine castanets in her home in East L.A. We did some experimenting in putting them on handles, which was initially rather crude, but then they quickly became more sophisticated, and bingo!—a new product hit the market. I have been making and selling them ever since. It is a wonderful product, and finding a beautiful pair even today makes me happy.”

His products also include the Cymbelt, which is designed to keep a cymbal securely attached to a bass drum, allows side-to-side positioning, and makes cymbal playing and muffling easier. A related product is the Cymbelt Caddy, which mounts onto the bass drum and holds the striking cymbal, and a Cymbal Hook for hanging a suspended cymbal. “I developed the Cymbelt and the Cymbelt Caddy based on need,” Epstein says. “They both worked fine for years until the development of the circular bass drum hoop. However, that issue has been solved with the availability of different sized posts that bring the mounted cymbal to a position just above the hoop.”

Epstein has a long-standing relationship with the Avedis Zildjian Company, where he has been a consultant on new product development. This eventually resulted in the Classic Orchestral Cymbal Selection. “Sabian had come out with a line for the orchestral cymbal player,” Epstein recalls. “Heretofore, cymbals for the orchestral player were taken from drum set cymbals, and even though Zildjian made a line of cymbals referred to as Germanic, French, and Viennese, they were mostly sold in Europe and not specifically designed for the orchestral player but classified by weight. I met with the Zildjians, and they agreed to design and make a new line of cymbals especially for the orchestral player. I spent over two years working with them, and we developed what became known as the American cymbal, designed so that there was one for the right hand and another for the left. The concern and challenge was playability, tone, and color, and if one cymbal was a hair smaller than the other, it would be easier to play them together. Those cymbals were difficult to make and were eventually discontinued. A year or two later, I was asked to start over, and the result of that effort was the Classic Orchestral line. Other lines for the orchestral player soon followed, and today the company offers an array of fine cymbals to suit every need.”

Epstein’s book, Cymbalisms, A Complete Guide for the Orchestral Cymbal Player, published in 2009, is the culmination of his tenure playing cymbals with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “Because I had spent so much time thinking about cymbals and how and what to do with them while playing them on a daily basis, the book came naturally,” he says. “I had been marking my parts for years as to how long or short a note should be allowed to ring. I marked parts as to what size cymbal to use, and I noted when a particular conductor’s style made me decide to do things differently than I had done before. I created a style of playing in which one could easily determine the active and the passive part of a note. If the note is active, the cymbals must stay in motion; if and when the note or the activity is over but there is still sound in the air, I stop moving them and let them ring in place. Cymbals then become passive in both quality and in reality. Moving the cymbals in the air produces activity, and so much of cymbal playing involves active cymbal play. It is not unlike conducting. The conductor keeps his baton in motion for active notes or passages, notes that move in the air, notes that move up and down, gestures that do both, etc. However, the baton stops when the notes are passive or held. It is tricky to discuss, but easier to demonstrate.

“Early on I decided that short notes should be played so that they did not ring through the rest that followed such a note; ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Tchaikovsky 4 come to mind. Most endings of pieces that include a cymbal stroke always have the cymbal sound hanging into the rest or cut off. The cymbal sound should not stick out unless it is specifically desired. There are many kinds of short notes throughout the repertoire, and just about any note has a certain correct length, so I developed some strokes to help formulize the playing of shorter and slightly longer notes. Specifically, these strokes are called Slice and Slit. Cymbalisms, the title of the book, also relates to some 22 ‘cymbalisms’ that are discussed in the book. Each cymbalism is a special stroke, technique, and/or sound that is used in specific places in the orchestral repertoire.”

Epstein also offers a performance edition of the percussion part to Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat,” which has the percussion instruments arranged by pitches, unlike Stravinsky’s original notation. “I worked on my part during my first year as a student at Tanglewood,” Epstein remembers. “I had three or four parts and scores before me, including some that are still on the market today. I wanted to play the music more musically than the original part allowed. I didn’t think that notes printed high on the staff should sound lower in pitch than notes that were printed lower on the staff. I assigned a specific line or space for each instrument so, for example, the high tom would appear on the high side of the staff and a low drum would appear on the lower part of the staff. It immediately changed the phrasing and musical line. Phrasing was more natural—more easily identified. I created the part for myself, and years later I made it available to others.”

Today, Epstein lives with his wife, Mary, in Brookline, Massachusetts. His daughter Rebecca and her four children live just a few minutes away, and his daughter Naomi lives in Chicago. Nomi, as she likes to be called, is a busy composer. Epstein continues working at the New England Conservatory doing what he likes best: teaching and running the Conservatory Percussion Ensemble. 

As he looks back over his career, Epstein says he has been lucky. “I used to think luck was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” he clarifies. “But today I also believe that some part of luck is made and created. One must make good choices, and perhaps most importantly, never say no. Be positive about whatever comes along. 

“Playing music is a privilege, it is not a right. It is your duty to do your best to be prepared and to play your part to the best of your ability. Be prepared, for you never know when an opportunity will come your way. Practice and prepare, work hard, do not be lazy, and don’t look for shortcuts. And finally, be creative. I find that to be the most fun—the ability to do something done by others for years and years, and to come up with a new and better way of doing the same thing.”

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