William Kraft, Percussionist and Force in New Music, Dies at 98

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 he felt were too often taken for granted in orchestras.

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

Mr. Kraft, who as both a composer and a percussionist became a force in contemporary music, elevating overlooked instruments like the timpani and developing a style that drew on jazz and Impressionism, died on Feb. 12 at a hospital in Glendale, Calif. He was 98.

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

A spirited performer, Mr. Kraft was acclaimed for his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he spent 26 years, 18 of them as principal timpanist.

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

“The days of percussionists being second-class citizens in the musical society are clearly over,” Mr. Kraft wrote.Credit…Carlos Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Playing his music — deliberate yet freewheeling, flashy but spiritual — became a rite of passage for percussionists, and his works were heard in band rooms and concert halls alike.

William Kraft was born in Chicago on Sept. 6, 1923, the son of Louis and Florence (Rogalsky) Kashareftsky, Jewish immigrants from Russia. (His father changed the family name from Kashareftsky to Kraft upon arriving in the United States.) When William was 3, the family moved to San Diego, where his parents opened a delicatessen and, at his mother’s urging, he began studying piano.

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

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

During World War II, when he worked as a drummer and pianist in American military bands stationed in Europe, he began exploring composition more seriously.

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

Mr. Kraft earned a master’s degree in composition at Columbia University in 1954. He joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic the next year and rose through the ranks, becoming principal timpanist in 1963. On the side, he continued writing his own works, including percussion pieces in the style of Baroque suites and a series of compositions that he called “Encounters,” pairing percussion with a variety of other instruments, including trumpet and harp. He called himself an “American Impressionist.”

Mr. Kraft, center, in Los Angeles in 2008 after a concert by the ensemble Southwest Chamber Music honoring him on his 85th birthday. He was joined by the ensemble’s John Schneider, left, and Ricardo Gallardo.Credit…Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Zubin Mehta, who served as the Philharmonic’s music director from 1962 to 1978, described Mr. Kraft as a nimble musician. He recalled Mr. Kraft rearranging the timpani part for Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” for one player, rather than two as was standard, making it easier for the Philharmonic to perform while on tour.

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

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

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

Mr. Kraft’s music, with its emphasis on rhythmic freedom, often seemed to pay homage to Stravinsky. Mr. Kraft was also fond of virtuosic feats; one of his concertos demands the performer play 15 timpani.

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

In 1956 he organized the First Percussion Quartet, made up of players from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The ensemble, which later grew in size and changed its name to the Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble and Chamber Players, promoted works by composers including 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. “We are still reaping the benefits of Kraft’s impact on the Philharmonic, and on the new music community.”

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

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

The day before he died, Ms. Huang said, Mr. Kraft asked about his unfinished pieces, and she promised to complete them.

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

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