Mark Gresham | 19 JUL 2019
Author’s Note: The original version of this article about sibling timpanists Mark and Paul Yancich was written for the May 2019 issue of Encore Atlanta, the program booklet of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In late June, the ASO re-published a version of the article on Medium.com. It seemed to me worth publishing yet again on EarRelevant for the enjoyment of our readers during these off-season summer months. And here it is. ~Mark Gresham
ATLANTA, GA— Brothers Mark and Paul Yancich share a singular life passion: playing timpani. Both are principal timpanists in major American symphony orchestras — Mark with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Paul with The Cleveland Orchestra.
More than that, the natives of Rochester, New York come from a family that boasts four generations of professional musicians and music teachers on both sides. Their father and his brother were both professional French horn players — their father in the Rochester Philharmonic, their uncle in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Their mother was a French horn player as well.
One pair of grandparents were both professional violinists. Grandfather Paul White was also a composer and conductor of the Rochester Orchestras for 36 years while simultaneously teaching at the Eastman School of Music. His wife Josephine was a child prodigy soloist, who had a successful solo career before focusing on raising her four children.
Her father, Paul and Mark’s great grandfather, was the renowned cornetist and bandmaster Bohumir Kryl, who was cornet soloist with John Philip Sousa in the 1890’s before he formed his own band and orchestras. He also recorded extensively for the Columbia, Victor and Edison labels.
Although rare, it’s not unheard of that siblings play the same instrument professionally in notable symphony orchestras. In addition to the Yancich brothers’ father and uncle, one can cite well-known examples like the Gomberg brothers, Ralph and Harold, who were principal oboists in the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic. It happens sometimes, and when it does, it offers ample opportunity to celebrate musically.
Such was the case when composer James Oliverio wrote DYNASTY: Double Timpani Concerto for Mark and Paul Yancich in honor of the rich legacy of their ancestry. The brothers premiered the concerto with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in June 2011, with Robert Spano conducting, then performed it again with the Cleveland Orchestra that September.
In May of 2019, Mark and Paul Yancich reprised Oliverio’s Double Timpani Concerto with Spano and the ASO. Given the brothers’ family legacy, “Dynasty” is an appropriate descriptive handle for the piece. As the children of French horn players, how Mark and Paul became percussionists makes for its own intriguing story.
“Paul started playing percussion first,” says Mark Yancich. “I was playing other instruments. Eventually, when we got into high school, I switched over to drums and followed his lead.”
Those public high school years in Rochester served as a watershed period. At that time, their father taught French Horn at the Eastman School of Music. So, in addition to their school’s own rich music programs, Rochester and Eastman offered them a full symphonic band, youth wind ensemble, youth orchestra and jazz ensembles which were sources of great musical experiences that shaped their life choices; sometimes in ways that were purely the luck of the moment.
“A lot of it was serendipity,” says Paul. “I was waiting for my dad to finish a class at the Eastman School of Music and a college student walked by with a pair of drumsticks in his back pocket, and that was it. I thought, ‘That’s cool. I want to do that.’”
Paul had his first drum lesson that following summer, and he was hooked. In contrast, Mark came to play percussion from playing French horn and classical guitar, but most of all he was drawn to drums through jazz.
“I played in the jazz band,” says Mark. “I also enjoyed playing in the symphonic band with Paul, but for me it was more about the drum set at that time.”
“I quickly realized playing the timpani gave me the same kind of shiver down my spine. In the end, I felt like I found a little bit more of a voice with the timpani, and for some reason, Paul had found a voice in timpani, too.”
The drum set didn’t grab Paul in the same way it did Mark, and the timpani didn’t draw him in until high school. “When I got in to high school, the band director told me I was going to play timpani. I thought, ‘Okay, I’d better learn how to do this then.’”
“When I was a freshman in high school, Paul was a senior,” recalls Mark. “When he had to play the harder percussion parts that came up, I would go over and play timpani. He’d play Boléro on snare drum, and I’d play the timpani. He took the lead, and I really enjoyed what he was doing.”
They both went onto the Cleveland Institute of Music, where they studied with Cloyd Duff, timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra. After their rigorous studies, it became a matter of auditions.
“Playing in the Atlanta Symphony was my first professional position,” says Paul. “Mark was playing in South America. There was an opening in the Cleveland Orchestra and I was fortunate enough to win that job in 1981. That made an opening in Atlanta, which Mark won.”
It was at the Cleveland Institute of Music that Mark and Paul forged a friendship with fellow student and composer James Oliverio. Oliverio wrote a piece for Paul’s senior recital, which marked the beginning of the long creative professional relationship that ultimately led to DYNASTY: Double Timpani Concerto, which the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra recorded in May of 2019 for ASO Media. ■