The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's Principal Timpani, Richard Holmes, has been with the orchestra since 1969. For more than a few concertgoers, he is one of the most fascinating musicians to observe. Even during long passages in which the timpani is not called upon, Holmes cuts an enigmatic figure at the back of the stage — arms crossed, relaxed, yet attentive to all that surrounds him. When he moves into preparation, he leans close to the timpani skins, taps them, listening for the required tone. With mallets in hand, it is as if his whole body uncoils as he strikes quickly, efficiently, precisely, producing sounds that are by turns shocking, exhilarating, and wholly musical.
Holmes gave Playbill a few minutes of his time prior to an SLSO concert to talk about what goes on in the mind of a timpanist, both in action and at rest.
Playbill: Is there a particular concert that comes to mind when you think about extraordinary experiences you've had on stage with the orchestra?
Richard Holmes: Recently, the concert that sticks out in my mind is the Das Lied von der Erde (November 2005 at Powell Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall). The funny thing about that piece is that there's only about four minutes of timpani playing. So with the size of the orchestra and the nature of the piece, I was actually able to sit down and listen to the orchestra — I mean listen attentively to everything that was going on. I remember getting chills listening to my colleagues — not only listening but watching their playing: their concentration, their unselfish donation to this massive work. It just blew my mind. It got to the point where I almost didn't want to play. I was too busy listening. It confirmed my whole feelings about this orchestra. It's truly a great orchestra.
Playbill: When you were in that moment, can you give me an idea of that sensation?
Holmes: I felt a closeness to Mahler and his struggle with life, the pain he was experiencing, and a lot of the dilemmas in his mind — the constant battle in his own personality. It was very strong in that piece for me. Mahler has been an enigma to a lot of people, and I think to himself.
The experience to me was very transcendent. It was a lifetime, let's put it that way. For me it was a lifetime: it was being born and living a life, then coming to the end of a life. A lot of concerts I feel that way: a birth, a life, and a finality. It's a whole experience in a nutshell in an hour or half an hour.
There are many pieces that feel that way. You're born, you're a seed, it germinates and develops into a flower or a plant and breathes and lives the storms that may encompass the countryside or experience the sunlight or the fresh air, and then at some point withers and fades away.
Playbill: You go through this emotion yet at the same time you have to count, you can't let the technical go away ...
Holmes: I don't think of that. I don't count. I don't mean that religiously, but I've been playing for many, many years and I know how the pieces fit together. You feel it inside — now it's time for your contribution. But I never feel when I'm counting that I'm not still part of it. You see, my life continues, my thought process continues until the end. If I'm not playing I'm listening and I'm following the thought of the composer and the music and then I just pick it up. It's like traveling. You stop at a rest stop, and then you go on until you stop at another rest stop.
Playbill: When you get to those four minutes, do you have to shift, does your mind move into preparation?
Holmes: No. The process is still there. In my mind I'm playing still, not physically but in my mind I'm playing. So when I get up to do my thing, add my little contribution, it's still part of that whole process. Even when I sit down when I'm through, my thought doesn't go to what's going to happen tomorrow or what am I going to do when I get home. My thought continues until the end. It's a constant line: one thought process that starts and ends.
Playbill: What is it like when it's over?
Holmes: That depends. It depends on how inspired I am, or if I'm tired. And sometimes, quite honestly, it's 'Thank God it's over.' I will be honest. And there are times I wish it wasn't over yet: Let's go on, let's do it again. The Mahler was like that: It's not enough. I haven't said enough. He hasn't said enough. There is still more to say. The Mahler, at the end of that I felt like hugging every one of my colleagues and saying 'Congratulations. You are fabulous. Thank you, thank you for giving me this experience.'
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.