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Born in Chicago but raised in Santa Barbara, William Kraft has been one of the West Coast’s most important musical voices for nearly four decades. In addition to his tenure as the Principal Timpanist of the LA Phil for 18 of his 26 years with the orchestra, he was Assistant Conductor for 3 years, and served as its composer-in-residence from 1981-1985, during which time he founded and directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.
During his early years in Los Angeles, he organized and directed the Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble, a group that played a vital part in premieres and recordings of works by such renowned composers as Ginastera, Harrison, Krenek, Stravinsky, and Varèse. Kraft served as Stravinsky’s timpanist and percussionist in charge of all percussion activities for the composer’s Los Angeles performances and recordings. As a percussion soloist, he performed in the American premieres of Stockhausen’s Zyklus and Boulez’ Le marteau sans maître, in addition to recording Histoire du soldat under Stravinsky’s direction.
Kraft has received numerous awards and commissions, including two Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards (first prize in 1990 for Veils and Variations for Horn and Orchestra, and second prize in 1984 for Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra); two Guggenheim Fellowships; two Ford Foundation commissions; fellowships from the Huntington Hartford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Music Award; the ASCAP Award; the NACUSA Award; commissions from the Library of Congress, U.S. Air Force Band, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, Voices of Change, the Schoenberg Institute, consortium of Speculum Musicae/San Francisco Contemporary Music Players/Contemporary Music Forum, the Boston Pops Orchestra, consortium of Pacific Symphony/Spokane Symphony/Tucson Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others.
Kraft’s Contextures: Riots – Decade ’60 (1967) has been choreographed and performed by both the Scottish National Ballet and the Minnesota Dance Company. In 1986, United Air Lines commissioned a work expressly to accompany a lumetric sculpture by Michael Hayden titled Sky’s the Limit for their pedestrian passageway at Chicago-O’Hare International Airport. In November 1990, Kraft was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Percussive Arts Society. The Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was premiered on January 16, 2003, with soloist Carolyn Hove and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. His Second Timpani Concerto, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, was premiered in June 2005 with soloist David Herbert, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.
Compact discs completely devoted to Kraft’s music can be found on Harmonia Mundi, CRI, Cambria, Albany, Crystal, and Nonesuch labels. Other works can be found on GM, Crystal, London Decca, and Neuma. Recent works include Brazen, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and the Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists for Symphonic Wind Ensemble, premiered and recorded by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, Frank Battisti conducting.
Beginning February 24, 2007, Southwest Chamber Music embarked on a project to perform and record 14 of Kraft’s 15 Encounters pieces. As Mark Swed, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, noted: “These works serve for Kraft the way the string quartet did for Beethoven or Shostakovich, as a kind of autobiography in chamber music.”
Encounters XI: The Demise of Suriyodhaya (1998) was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Carolyn Hove and Raynor Carroll, and was premiered by them on a Green Umbrella concert March 1, 1999. The composer wrote the following note:
This night, a moment before dawn,
The wind sounds a gentle tone
For all who’d listen to mourn
The demise of the Noblest one!
“Encounters XI is dedicated to Lou Harrison and Toru Takemitsu. To Lou, whose music led me to the wonders of the Southeast Asian gamelan; to Toru, who so incredibly absorbed the soul of Debussy with music that spoke of eternity. The third movement, ‘Peace of God,’ is particularly in memory of Toru.
“The structure is taken loosely from that of my Encounters III and IV, where the movements were facetiously related to war games: ‘Strategy’ (how the enemies engage one another); ‘Peace of God’ (a convention in medieval times supervised by the Pope wherein the armies laid down their arms Friday sunset and resumed combat Monday sunrise); ‘Tactics’ (full battle). In Encounters XI, however, a fourth movement was added, entitled ‘Suriyodhaya’s Dream.’
“In consideration of the Asian aspects of the piece (percussion instruments and Asian literary sources), the music is based on the coupling of two pentatonic scales. This idea was borrowed from my wife, the composer Joan Huang, but utilized quite differently: on occasion the scales are treated as two independent entities playing with and against one another; at other times they are combined to create a 10-note mode which metamorphoses into other modes.
“ ‘The Demise of Suriyodhaya’ is the title of a poem by B. Kasemsri commemorating the heroism and death of Queen Suriyothai (Suriyodhaya in the poem); the last stanza is quoted above. (I want to thank William J. Klausner, Professor, Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, for locating the literary sources for Encounters XI.) The poem tells of the battle between Thailand (then called Ayudhya prior to Siam) led by King Phra Mahchakkraphat (or Chakraphat, 1548-1569) and the invading Burmese led by the Prince of Pegu with an overwhelming force of over 300,000 men and 700 war elephants.
“Sensing the threat against her husband and, in the event of his death leaving Ayudhya without a king, Suriyodhaya disguised herself as a man, mounted a war elephant, and entered the fray. As the Prince of Pegu was poised to strike a mortal blow to the King, Suriyodhaya interposed and took the blow herself.”