William Kraft, percussionist and Force in New Music, dies at 98

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Lamenting the abundance of what he called “rat-a-tat, boom-boom” music for drums, William Kraft set out to create more sophisticated offerings that would bring greater respect to instruments that he believed were too often taken for granted in orchestras.

“The days when percussionists were second-class citizens in musical society are clearly over,” he wrote in 1968. “The last orchestral families to be exploited, they came of age in the 20th century.”

Mr. Kraft, who as a composer and percussionist became a force in contemporary music, elevating neglected instruments like timpani and developing a style inspired by jazz and impressionism, died on February 12 in a hospital in Glendale , in California. He was 98 years old.

His wife, composer Joan Huang, said the cause was heart failure.

A fiery performer, Mr. Kraft won acclaim for his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, where he spent 26 years, 18 of them as principal timpanist.

But he was perhaps best known as a composer. A frequent collaborator of Igor Stravinsky, Mr. Kraft helped legitimize contemporary music in the United States, founding ensembles to feature modern composers at a time when many classical musicians feared they were straying too far from the traditional canon.

Playing his music – deliberate yet free, flashy yet witty – became a rite of passage for percussionists, and his works were heard in music halls and concert halls.

William Kraft was born in Chicago on September 6, 1923, the son of Louis and Florence (Rogalsky) Kashareftsky, Jewish immigrants from Russia. (His father changed the surname from Kashareftsky to Kraft when he arrived in the United States.) When William was 3, the family moved to San Diego, where his parents opened a delicatessen and, at the request of his mother, he began to study the piano.

While he adored the music of French Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel (“my great idols”, say his friends, he called them), he did not initially plan to make a career out of composition.

“I just thought they were gods and shouldn’t be touched,” he said in a 2020 maintenance with Ching Juhl, producer and violist. “They were influences, but I never thought I could write the style.”

During World War II, while working as a drummer and pianist in American military bands stationed in Europe, he began to explore composition more seriously.

His roommate at the time, a trumpeter, asked him to produce an arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s standard “Stardust”. Mr. Kraft agreed, but he wanted to do it his own way, composing an elaborate introduction based on the musical interval of the fourth.

Mr. Kraft received a master’s degree in composition from Columbia University in 1954. He joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra the following year and rose through the ranks, becoming principal timpanist in 1963. At the same time, he continued to write his own works, including percussion pieces. in the style of Baroque suites and a series of compositions he called “Encounters”, combining percussion with a variety of other instruments, including trumpet and harp. He called himself an “American Impressionist”.

Zubin Mehta, who served as music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra from 1962 to 1978, described Mr. Kraft as an agile musician. He recalled that Mr. Kraft had rearranged the timpani part for Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” for one player, rather than two as was the norm, which made it easier for the Philharmonic Orchestra to play during its tour.

“He knew the coins so well,” Mr. Mehta said in an interview. “It came naturally.”

Mr. Mehta elevated Mr. Kraft to the position of assistant conductor, which he held from 1969 to 1972. Mr. Kraft sold his instruments and retired from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1981 to become the composer in residence of the orchestra.

Stravinsky, who moved to California in the 1940s, had a significant influence on Mr. Kraft. (Mr. Kraft once said that hearing “The Rite of Spring” for the first time as a teenager “changed my life.”) The two men often worked together. Mr. Kraft played timpani in Stravinsky’s ensembles and helped edit the percussion parts of Stravinsky’s musical piece “The Soldier’s Tale”.

Mr. Kraft’s music, which emphasized rhythmic freedom, often seemed to pay homage to Stravinsky. Mr. Kraft was also fond of virtuoso feats; one of his concertos asks the performer to play 15 timpani.

“He was one of the few atonal composers who really wrote very uplifting music,” said composer Paul Polivnick, a friend. “While he had his mathematical formulas, he let his music be grounded in creating a sense of emotional and dramatic power.”

In 1956, he organized the First Percussion Quartet, made up of musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The ensemble, which later expanded and changed its name to the Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble and Chamber Players, promoted works by composers such as Stravinsky, Alberto Ginastera and Edgard Varèse.

In 1981 Mr. Kraft founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. He also had a busy teaching career, serving as chairman of the composition department at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 1991 to 2002.

“He put Los Angeles on the map as a hot spot for contemporary music,” said Joseph Pereira, the current principal timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. “We are still reaping the benefits of Kraft’s impact on the Philharmonic Orchestra and the new music community.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Kraft is survived by one son, Patrick; one daughter, Jennifer; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

He composed until the end of his life, sitting at the piano every day to sketch out ideas. When he died, he was working on a piece called “Kaleidoscope” as well as a rearrangement of a piano concerto.

The day before she died, Ms. Huang said, Mr. Kraft asked about her unfinished plays and she promised to finish them.

“He loved composing,” she said. “It was his language.”

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