PAS Hall of Fame

Roland Kohloff

by Lauren Vogel Weiss

Roland Kohloff

Roland Kohloff spent nearly half a century as Principal Timpanist in two of  America’s most prominent orchestras: the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. In addition to creating countless musical moments for live audiences and on recordings, he also left a lasting legacy through his students, who carry on Kohloff’s performance practices.

“Like a roll of thunder across the world, Roland established a legacy of greatness through his leadership both on and off the stage,” proclaims David Herbert, Principal Timpanist of the Chicago Symphony and former San Francisco Symphony timpanist. “He was a consummate performer. His skill and intensity were brilliant, leading the New York Philharmonic through massive tutti sections and then proportionately spinning out the most eloquent subtleties that transfixed audiences and provided inspiration for his colleagues. Watching and hearing Roland play was an artistic masterclass. His tonal authority and rock-steady reliability was the very foundation of the orchestra, and he was the only worthy successor to the legendary Saul Goodman.”

Randy Max, Principal Timpanist with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, said that “Roland’s teaching was methodical, thorough, thoughtful, and precise, and his advice and guidance helped me as a student and throughout my career. Roland cared deeply about his students and constantly did his utmost to help each person he taught, and in return, he was highly respected and admired by his students.”

Born on January 20, 1935 in Port Chester, New York, Roland Kohloff was raised in nearby Mamaroneck. He graduated from Rye Neck High School in 1952 before enrolling at the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with the legendary Saul Goodman.

While at Juilliard, Kohloff made his professional debut as percussion soloist in Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.” He also appeared with the percussion section of the New York Philharmonic on the famed television program Omnibus.

“As he was to many others, Saul was a musical father to me,” Kohloff wrote in a June 1996 Percussive Notes tribute to Goodman. “It was entirely on his recommendation that I was accepted to the timpani position in the San Francisco Symphony. When I said goodbye to him, he told me, ‘Become your own player. Don’t copy anyone else because that’s only second best.’ As usual, Saul was one-hundred-percent right.”

Kohloff joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1956, where he soon made a favorable impression with Music Director Enrique Jordá and the rest of the orchestra. During his second season, Kohloff was soloist in “Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra” by Darius Milhaud. Roland was again featured as a soloist in William Sydeman’s “The Lament of Electra” in 1966, followed two years later in George Crumb’s “Madrigals.” In 1970, Kohloff was joined by other members of the SFS section — Lloyd Davis, Peggy Lucchesi, and Anthony J. Cirone — in “Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra” by William Kraft.

Kohloff also taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and led the San Francisco Percussion Ensemble for Young Audiences.

Anthony J. Cirone played alongside Kohloff for seven seasons, and had also studied with Goodman at Juilliard. “Goodman would tell us that Roland was his greatest student,” Cirone wrote in Meredith Music’s book about Goodman, A View From the Rear. “I can attest to Roland’s amazing musical abilities. Roland would always speak of how great Saul was as a teacher and all he taught him about interpreting the timpani parts to the great symphonic repertoire. He was so excited to become Goodman’s replacement with the New York Philharmonic.” 

Joseph Pereira, Principal Timpanist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, notes that Roland had a 16-year career with both the San Francisco Symphony and Opera. “Roland was one of the rare timpanists to have the knowledge and experience of both the orchestral and opera repertoire,” Pereira says.

In 1972, Goodman retired from the New York Philharmonic after 46 years behind the timpani. “Goodman ‘suggested’ that Roland should audition to replace him,” explains Christopher Lamb, Principal Percussionist with the New York Philharmonic since 1985. “Roland honored his teacher, auditioning for [Music Director Pierre] Boulez before he stepped into Goodman’s massive shoes.” Kohloff served as Principal Timpanist with the New York Philharmonic for the next 32 years,

During his tenure, Kohloff gave the New York premieres of several contemporary timpani works, including Franco Donatoni’sConcertino for Strings, Brass and Solo Timpani” in 1977. That same year, Kohloff performed with his colleagues in the Philharmonic percussion section — Walter Rosenberger, Elden “Buster” Bailey, and Morris “Arnie” Lang — in the world premiere of Michael Colgrass’s “Déjà Vu” for percussion quartet and orchestra.

In 1978, Kohloff performed with two orchestras in different halls on the same night! On October 3, he played a regularly scheduled concert with the NY Phil at Lincoln Center. That same evening, the Philadelphia Orchestra was playing a concert at Carnegie Hall, which included “Final Alice” by David Del Tredici, which the Philharmonic had played the year before. Philadelphia’s timpanist, Gerald Carlyss, was unable to join his colleagues in New York due to a death in his family. So after intermission at Lincoln Center, Kohloff raced across Midtown Manhattan in time to make the second downbeat!

Other solo appearances with the Philharmonic included “Double Concerto for Piano, Timpani and Orchestra” by Bohuslav Martinu in 1979, and “Der Wald” (“The Forest”), Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra by Siegfried Matthus in 1991.

“When I replaced Walter Rosenberger as principal percussionist in 1985,” Lamb says, “my colleagues were super supportive. Roland, in particular, was very encouraging and discussed every aspect of playing and life in general. Roland was the energy and power underneath the Philharmonic sound during that era. And the orchestra was in good hands when he was driving!”

Daniel Druckman, Associate Principal Percussionist with the New York Philharmonic and chair of the percussion department at Juilliard, says he was fortunate to have Roland as a colleague at both the New York Philharmonic and Juilliard for the last 13 years of Kohloff’s life. “He was also a dear friend and an important mentor. His timpani playing was bold, incisive, dramatic, sensitive, and always seemingly effortless — the quintessential ‘natural.’ The kind of musician who never had to warm up or practice or get in the zone; he could just pick up the sticks and play. Music represented unmitigated joy and beauty for Roland throughout a lifetime that was not so joyful or beautiful at times. I was so lucky to spend my formative first years in the orchestra playing next to him and learning from him.”

Gordon Gottlieb, who performed as a regular guest percussionist with the New York Philharmonic and taught at Juilliard, says that, “Having Roland as a colleague and a friend was a thrilling and intense ride. He always played as if it would be his last time: full drama, sticks high in the air, always in tune, with his signature huge sound. As a friend, he was the same: high voltage, always concerned about you and your world, both hands on your shoulders, head forward, and looking at you with laser intensity.”

Percussionist and jazz vibraphonist Erik Charlston, a former student of Kohloff’s at Juilliard, says that Kohloff “was perhaps the most passionate orchestral timpanist I’ve ever known. He deeply loved the repertoire as well as the opportunity to perform and bring it to life with two great orchestras. He performed with such consistency, clarity, and musicianship. These were the qualities he passed on to generations of students. He was a selfless giant of his instrument.”

Ruth Komanoff Underwood, a retired professional percussionist who played with Frank Zappa and was a Goodman student, says that, “As a performer, Roland Kohloff seemed larger than life. He was a charismatic player who was utterly thrilling to watch, and truly unforgettable. As a diligent listener of both recordings and live concerts across many musical genres, I appreciated his broad range — from sensitive attention to detail to his unbridled passion. He often seemed to inhabit a place in the music that felt risky to me, perhaps even ‘dangerous,’ which, in contrast to the usual restrained and polite ambience of many classical concerts, I found extraordinarily exciting and appealing.”

World-renowned conductor Zubin Mehta offered his support for Kohloff’s nomination to the PAS Hall of Fame, calling him, “one of the greatest timpanists of the world. Knowing Roland Kohloff from my days as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, I admired his most beautiful sound, his incredible sense of musicality, and how wonderful it was to work with him as a colleague.”

Kohloff began teaching at Juilliard in 1978, where he influenced countless young percussionists for the next 26 years. He was only the second director of the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, which had been founded in the late 1960s by Saul Goodman, and is now under the direction of Daniel Druckman. “I witnessed firsthand the incredible care, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail that Roland showered on his students,” explains Druckman. “His list of successful students — Tim Genis [Boston Symphony], Dave Herbert, Joe Pereira, Randy Max, to name only a few — speaks eloquently for itself.”

Herbert says that Roland was “the greatest teacher and mentor. He cared so deeply for his students. There are no words to convey how much he meant to me and everyone he taught, but selfless, kind, magnanimous, circumspect, and larger than life are a good start! It is truly awe-inspiring to reflect upon the rarest combination of virtuosic performer and transcendent educator who could both physically demonstrate and verbally communicate the very essence of music itself.”

Pereira studied with Kohloff at Juilliard from 1996–98 while he earned his master’s degree. “Under Roland’s guidance, I won my position [Assistant Principal Timpani/Section Percussion] in the New York Philharmonic and was by his side as his assistant until his passing. His way of life is something I strive to achieve every day, not only in my playing and teaching, but also in my personal life. Roland was like a father figure to me, and the invaluable experiences I’ve had under his mentorship are something I will never forget. Roland had a unique way of communicating important and often complex ideas in a very direct and articulate way. It made you feel like anything was possible and certainly gave me confidence in my own playing.”

Rob Waring, a member of the percussion faculty at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo and a former Juilliard student, met Kohloff when Waring was a 16-year-old member of a youth orchestra. “Whereas my other teachers focused on the craft, Roland was an artist,” Waring says. “Though he was more demanding than anyone I had met when it came to technique, his real focus was on the expressive power of music and the role of the musician in the realization of great art. One particularly dramatic example of this was when I was able to sit next to Roland onstage as he played Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Towards the end of the second movement, the timpanist plays a solo, which is only a single note. As this moment approached, Roland became engulfed in the gravity of the task. The meaning of that note took on enormous dimensions. It seemed like the single most important note in the entire movement. That note played by Roland is one of the reasons I became a professional musician. His expressive power as a timpanist was huge, but his dedication as a teacher was just as great. He was inspiring in the way he spoke about music. Studying with Roland, one quickly realized how important art is for the world in general and that music is one of the greatest achievements of mankind.”

Patti Niemi, who studied with Kohloff at Juilliard from 1983–87 and has been a percussionist with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra since 1992, says she spent many hours listening to Roland put all he had into his performances. “And he shared this passion with his students,” she says. “Roland was a strong and musical player, as well as an incredible teacher. What’s remarkable — given his talent in those areas — is that the first thought I have is about Roland’s humanity. From the mental-health challenges he struggled with sprang the ability to empathize. College years can be a hard transition for many, and I was no exception. There were lessons when I burst into tears for reasons unrelated to music, and Roland was unfailingly there with his compassion and kindness. His beautiful heart extended to his love for music. At one lesson, I was playing along to a recording of Schumann’s ‘Symphony No. 2.’ Roland told me that Schumann’s symphonies were like four gems. Then, leaning in close as if to confide a secret, he added, ‘But this one shines a little brighter.’ Roland Kohloff was one of the brightest gems ever to teach and perform in our profession.”

Michael Israelievitch, Principal Timpanist with the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany, remembers Kohloff saying he was one of the best timpanists he had seen come through the doors at Juilliard. “For an 18-year-old student, a comment like that from the timpanist of the New York Philharmonic gave me all the confidence I needed to pursue my dreams of becoming a professional orchestral timpanist,” Israelievitch says.

Kohloff also taught and performed at the Aspen Music Festival, Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood, and the Waterloo Music Festival, as well as serving as percussionist for the Goldman Band. Meredith Music published his book, Timpani Master Class with Roland Kohloff: Beethoven “Symphony No. 5.”

Years before it was commonly discussed in public, Kohloff was a strong advocate for the mentally ill, often explaining that mental illness can affect anyone. He experienced bouts of severe depression, yet spoke openly about the benefits he derived from electroshock therapy. “Instead of two months in a hospital, I get a series of treatments for a week-and-a-half and I’m back playing again,” he told Newsday’s Zachary R. Dowdy in 2001.

Roland Kohloff died on February 24, 2006 at age 71.

“Roland was the timpanist who shaped the sound of the New York Philharmonic for over 30 years, and the lives of so many students at Juilliard,” Joseph Pereira says. “But all the while, he was dealing with a hereditary form of manic depression and mild schizophrenia. I witnessed his struggles firsthand, and he always handled it with such grace and humility. I cannot tell you how many times Roland said, ‘Playing timpani in an orchestra is the greatest job in the world,’ and I believe this is what got him through his battles. He truly loved playing and his students.”

Gordon Gottlieb puts Kohloff’s legacy in a historical perspective. “Roland represented the direct line from Saul Goodman in an extraordinary way. He was never a ‘shadow’ of that lineage. Roland was his own man, musician, and enormous influence on so many timpanists and percussionists.”

Randy Max concludes that, “Those of us lucky enough to have seen Roland perform knew him as a meticulous player who was an engaging personality on stage and so much fun to watch. Simply put, Roland Kohloff was a legend.” 


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