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A Tribute to Alan Abel and the Greatest Generation of orchestral percussion artists

Jun 5, 2020, 12:20 PM by Hillary Henry

By Niel DePonte
Principal Percussion, The Oregon Symphony

Alan AbelOnce upon a time, the world was not so small, not so interconnected, not so homogenized. Countries had provinces that were distinct with varying architectures, cuisines, and dialects. And if you loved orchestral music, the orchestra you loved best was the one in your major metropolitan area, the place where you lived. That group had its own sound! You knew it when you heard it. With the broad distribution of recorded music beginning in the 1940’s, the world became one degree smaller. You could hear orchestras from other parts of the USA. 

Those of us who grew up with vinyl records, or lived in a major metropolitan city, primarily followed our hometown orchestras as one followed baseball teams. Who was the new manager (conductor)? Who was the star pitcher (concertmaster)? And for those of us who saw ourselves as perhaps 2nd basemen (clarinets), or outfielders (trumpets), or sluggers (trombones), we would have happily collected their orchestral baseball cards with their stats, if such a thing existed. 

But for those of us who saw ourselves as pinch hitters (percussionists) or home run kings (timpanists), there were a group of men who were on most of our recordings, most radio broadcasts, and taught in most, if not all, of the important conservatories, or taught us privately. These men whom we followed fanatically, and whose styles and musical dialects were the subject of great debates in practice rooms across America, were the position players we came to revere and hoped to emulate.

I am talking now about the 1960s–1970s in the main here. And I will quickly apologize for being regionally biased, or Big Five Orchestra biased, or having missed some important names from our field. It is nearly impossible to be complete and comprehensive in an article such as this. But if you feel I left out your favorite percussionist or timpanist from this period (or abbreviated a list below because sections changed over 20 years), it is very possible that they came from a slightly smaller city, recorded less often than these men, or taught fewer students during this period of time. Or, even more likely, they were already disciples of these percussion titans, having been taught by them in the recent past. In any event, here are the timpanists and percussionists from the Big Five Orchestras of this period whose names we most remember.

  • Chicago Symphony: Donald Koss, timpani, Gordon Peters, Al Payson, Sam Denov, James Ross Sr.  
  • New York Philharmonic: Saul Goodman, timpani, Walter Rosenberger, Elden “Buster” Bailey, Morris “Arnie” Lang
  • Philadelphia Orchestra: Fred Hinger, timpani, Michael “Mickey” Bookspan, Charles Owen, Alan Abel
  • Boston Symphony: Everett “Vic” Firth, timpani, Arthur Press, Tommy Thompson, Tom Gauger, Frank Epstein
  • Cleveland Orchestra: Cloyd Duff, timpani, Richard Weiner, Joe Adato, Robert Matson, Donald Miller

Consider these percussionists the trunk of the great tree of percussionists that sprang from the roots set by German, Russian, Italian, Jewish and other emigres from Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those of us who are at least 45 years of age or older know these names, knew these men, studied with them, performed with them at times, and expanded the percussion diaspora that, with the world growing smaller and smaller each decade, created the enormous percussion world as we know it today. It is an incredibly diverse world, an incredibly intelligent world, and an incredibly talented world. We stand on the shoulders of these great men, from “The Greatest Generation,” as the book would tell us, who were innovators, who were professionals in every sense, and who were generous in their artistry in performance, on record (and cassette, 8-track, CD, and retro-concert streaming), and in their teaching.

And it is why the passing of a man like Alan Abel strikes each of us so profoundly. I had a few connections to him. I loved the sound the Philadelphia Orchestra percussionists made in concert and on recordings. Then most of my teachers were from the Eastman School of Music and studied with Philadelphian William Street, or were from Philly like my friend percussionist Bill Cahn. The Nexus percussion ensemble members were also acquaintances of mine and many had studied with the Philly section growing up. And Mr. Abel was part of a trio of orchestral percussionists who chose me as the winner of the first PASIC Mock Audition at the first PASIC in 1976. He was a man whom I could call and ask advice. He was always generous with his time and thoughts.

More than that, I knew dozens of percussionists who went to Temple University where Mr. Abel taught, and I learned from them in turn. And for those of us who knew any of the other players from The Greatest Generation, you knew that when you had a moment with them, even just to meet them, that this was a precious moment. 

Most of these men are gone now. My friend Arnie Lang is still with us, and I am not sure of the others. But I know Mr. Abel’s passing was the end of an era in Philadelphia, and I feel the loss as if I were related to him. In a sense, we all are. His was a rare gift of generosity that permeated our field. We all felt somehow connected to him, I believe. I have some of his percussion DNA within me, not as much as others, but enough to leave me feeling his loss more profoundly than I thought possible.

I met or knew about half of these men. I studied with Hinger for a time. I once received a nice note from Charley Owen after he played a piece of mine with his wife playing clarinet. I got to talk shop with him once when he said, “You know, nobody ever plays snare drum softly enough in an audition.” But with the passing of Alan Abel, and my own retirement in June as principal of the Oregon Symphony after 42 years, you begin to see the long line of players that have moved our field forward. And you hope that you have contributed in a way that would have won the approval of the men you looked up to when you were at the back of the line. 

May God grant peace to all these men, and all the others of that generation, who gave all of us so much. And may all of us along the lineage of players, at the front, middle, or back of the line, always look long and hard, and in both directions, down that line and learn something from everyone who is on it.

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