Principal Timpanist James Gott retires from the SF Ballet Orchestra at the end of the 2019 Season after more than 30 years playing with the Orchestra.
How did you get started in music?
I grew up in Southern California. When I was in fifth grade, a district music teacher came to my school and said we could choose an instrument to learn. I was planning on learning to play the clarinet. But when the teacher called out each instrument and asked who wanted to learn it, he started with the drums. On impulse, I decided to raise my hand. That one moment changed the course of my life.
How did you start as a timpanist?
There was an older kid in the school orchestra who played the timpani, and he showed me how to play. Then when I was in seventh grade, I was the only one who knew anything about timpani, so I became the timpanist. In middle and high school, the best kids from each school were picked to play in an All-City Orchestra. My senior year, the guest conductor of the All-City Orchestra was from San Jose State, and he offered me a scholarship. I went to my mom and said, “I don’t care if I starve to death, I want to be a musician.” And she said, “Go for it.”
I studied at San Jose State with Tony Cirone, who was then the principal percussionist of the San Francisco Symphony. He had been a student of [legendary timpanist] Saul Goodman of the New York Philharmonic. I then went to Juilliard for my master’s and studied with Saul Goodman myself. It was awesome. After Juilliard, I played with the Oakland Symphony for 10 years. Then it went bankrupt and, for the next two years, my wife was the breadwinner. It was looking like I wasn’t going to have a music career. But then a job here at the Ballet opened up when the timpanist Danny Montoro died. The audition was very stressful, but I got the job. It’s been a dream job for me for 31 years.
What makes a good timpanist?
A lot of people call the timpanist the second conductor, because you have to drive the orchestra. You’ve got to lay down a beat like you’re the drummer in a band. You have to be on top of everything that’s going on, in order to fit properly and complement the conductor. It can be stressful, because you’re the only one doing what you do. If you don’t come in, it doesn’t get played.
What’s the best part of being in the SF Ballet Orchestra?
In this orchestra, the players and the conductor have always been on a first-name basis. There’s a lot of collegiality: when Martin [West] first came here, he said this is the happiest orchestra he’s ever conducted.
What is the most challenging part of being in the SF Ballet Orchestra?
Ballet has its own challenges, because every performance can be different, based on the cast. It’s always more heads-up ball here than a symphony concert, where you rehearse and play it the same way. There could be four or five different ways to play it here, based on who’s onstage.
Who influenced you as a musician?
[Former Music Director] Denis de Coteau certainly did. He was a musician’s musician, and a joy to work with. In [Forsythe’s] The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, we play the last movement of Shubert’s Great C Major symphony, which is a lot of playing for timpani. After the first rehearsal, Denis came over to me and said, “You played the hell out that.” That was a real compliment I’ll never forget.
Any music that’s been particularly significant?
Another thing I love about this job is that we play symphonic repertoire a lot, in addition to ballet music. As a timpanist, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is something you aspire to play. It’s a bucket list item. When Yuri [Possokhov] choreographed it, I played it 16 times in a little over a year. That’s more than some people in major orchestras get to play it in their whole lifetime! So that was really neat.
I’ve also played 1,035 Nutcrackers here. The fact that I’m not sick of it is a testament to the greatness of Tchaikovsky’s music.
Are there performances that stood out for you?
There’s been some very special moments here. Like when Davit [Karapetyan] proposed to Vanessa [Zahorian] onstage after a performance. I also remember dancers Tony Randazzo and Evelyn Cisneros. They were my favorites—both of them were completely in command of the music.
One thing I’m looking forward to is coming back next January for [Wheeldon’s] Cinderella and actually seeing it from the audience. There are so many special effects, and I’ve only seen a bit of the end of the first act from the pit. Even that was so amazing, it made my hair stand on end.
What will you miss, and what’s next?
I’ll miss all of my colleagues. I’ll certainly miss playing in the pit, and I’ll miss playing my instrument. It’s going to be weird not doing what I’ve always done. But I’m looking forward to spending more time with my wife. We’re moving east of Sacramento, so it’s going to be nice and quiet. I’m ready for a new chapter.
Cinderella© by Christopher Wheeldon
Header image: James Gott // © Brandon Patoc