Drum Roll Please… with Percussionist Allen Biggs

In his career with California Symphony, it’s not common for Principal Percussionist Allen Biggs to play drum kit during concerts—let alone for two different pieces on the same program! In season opener COPLAND—AMERICAN TRADITIONS, Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D and Juan Pablo Contreras’ MeChicano both feature drum kits of various sizes and playing styles, reflecting the New Orleans and Latin roots of each piece, respectively. We asked Allen to tell us more.

By Percussionist Allen Biggs

Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto features a cadenza, and interestingly this improvised section then turns into a duet… for drum kit and violin!  The two instruments have a lot of interplay, and at one point the drummer is instructed to play “with two sticks, one stick on each side of the shell of a field drum,” while at other times I am asked to play on the crown of the cymbal. This drum kit should be quite small, in fact the composer specifies I use a very small bass drum, and to play it, “very dry.”  

To me this cadenza sounds like a musical depiction of a train,  speeding up as it leaves the station, and also slowing down as it arrives at the next destination.

In contrast the drum kit for Juan Pablo Contreras MeChicano is quite large. (For any drum nerds like me, it is similar to the kit needed to play The Black Page by Frank Zappa.) It calls for three roto-toms and four different cymbals, as well as three toms, bass drum, snare drum, cowbell and hi-hat.

There is a section in the piece where I improvise a drum solo, based on rhythmic, dynamic and articulation ideas given by the composer. In the midst of it, I rejoin my colleagues to play unison, and then I go back to improvising.

Such a cool musical idea! I am really looking forward to our premiere of this piece.

Jazz drummer Baby Dodds (1898-1959) playing on a typical New Orleans drum kit setup

See Allen on drum kit at COPLAND—AMERICAN TRADITIONS, Saturday, September 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 1 at 4 p.m. at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $45 to $90 and $20 for students 25 and under, and include a free 30-minute pre-concert talk starting one hour before the performance. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 p.m. 


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