Percussion pioneer Vic Firth dead at 85

29 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Percussion pioneer Vic Firth dead at 85.

BOSTON — Everett “Vic” Firth, a longtime timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra who launched a successful drumstick company bearing his name, has died at 85.That, more than 50 years ago, is precisely what Vic Firth did, in the process becoming, almost inadvertently, the world’s most prolific drumstick manufacturer. He became even more widely revered as an entrepreneur who made drumsticks, mallets, brushes and other percussion gear — one whose company has outfitted everyone from jazz legend Buddy Rich to avant-garde ensemble Sō Percussion to Questlove of The Roots, who once called his Vic Firth equipment the “Gucci and Louis Vuitton” of drumsticks.

At the time of his retirement in 2002, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart called him “the greatest timpanist in the world” and then-music director Seiji Ozawa told the Globe: “Vic puts his timpani into the very core of the musical pulse, and that affects everything else that happens in the orchestra.” A Winchester native who grew up in Maine, Mr. Firth at key moments during performances. “For instance in Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring,’ when we got to the ‘Danse sacrale’ at the end, the conductor could have put his stick down,” Silverstein said. “Vic was leading the orchestra.” Mr. Firth, who also taught at New England Conservatory from 1952 to 1995 and founded a highly successful drumsticks company, died in his Boston home Sunday of pancreatic cancer.

The Vic Firth artist endorsement roster ranges across every musical genre, from heavy metal drummers to marching bands, and also includes Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones, jazz artists Gary Burton and Jack DeJohnette, and such wide-ranging session players as Omar Hakim, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Daft Punk, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. “I had no intentions of getting into a business,” Firth told MSNBC. “It was simply to supply a stick that was better than what was available. Firth, whom The Boston Globe, in a 2002 profile, called “debonair, affable, intelligent and sometimes cheerfully profane,” never planned to become a Stradivari of sticks.

But by the early 1960s, after having played with the orchestra for a dozen years, he had grown frustrated with the drumsticks on the market, which, he realized, could not meet the demands of the full symphonic repertoire. He sold them in matched sets according to their identical properties in weight, moisture content, density and pitch, which gave rise to his company’s slogan: “The Perfect Pair.” Despite his avowed initial lack of interest in becoming a businessman, Firth stressed to his own students over the years the importance of being an entrepreneur — decades before conservatories and university music programs began offering curricula and formal programming on entrepreneurship to their students.

Seeking sticks that were fleet, strong, perfectly straight, of even weight in the hands and able to produce the vast range and color of sounds he desired — from the patter of raindrops to the rattle of bones to the thunder of cannons — he was forced to jury-rig a pair. Rob Cross is the principal percussionist of the Virginia Symphony, as well as the artistic and executive director of the Virginia Arts Festival, each based in Norfolk, Va.

Working in his garage, he whittled a prototype that had the lightness, versatility and equilibrium he desired, and engaged a wood turner to fabricate the sticks. He studied with Firth at NEC and says that his teacher stressed looking beyond their classical performance training. “Even from the early part of my undergraduate years,” Cross says, “he impressed upon us that you needed to be well-rounded and to have other opportunities — to have options and a bigger vision. I had to find a way to put those sounds in my head into the instrument and into the overall orchestral atmosphere.” During that period he became known for subtle choices of particular sticks to render specific passages in a score.

Firth also extended the brand into rolling pins, muddlers and pepper and salt mills, including a signature Mario Batali series; the kitchen division, known as Vic Firth Gourmet, was sold to Maine Wood Concepts in 2012. Firth’s playing has been captured on many recordings, including a well-known Munch-led account of Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, and Davis’s own cycle of Sibelius symphonies recorded with the BSO. Firth told The Bangor Daily News in 2008. “They may think twice before buying a new set of drums, but they always need sticks.” Made chiefly of hickory, maple or birch, Mr. Firth’s playing as “a miracle of precision and ferocity.” “My greatest learning tool ever was sitting behind him for 10 years and just watching him,” said the BSO’s current principal timpanist, Timothy Genis, who joined the orchestra in 1993. “His intonation, his color — he had the whole package.

His company merged with Zildjian, a Norwell-based cymbal and drumsticks company, in 2010. “Through his travel with the symphony, he was able to create relationships around the world,” said Jim Doyle, vice president of Vic Firth Co., adding that the timpanist was known to arrive in a new city, pull out a phone book, and visit the local music store to discuss his sticks. As a result, he was sometimes asked to sit in with some of the world’s foremost rock bands. “I was sitting on the stage, and they asked me to lead off the big drum solo,” he said. “I was wearing a coat and tie and I told them I’d look like a stuffed shirt. Firth told an interviewer for Modern Drummer magazine in 2001 that “performing has always been an adventure, and the thrill of that adventure is still with me.

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