Dennis Kain, principal timpanist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for 46 years, who was celebrated for his fiery temperament, extraordinary rhythmic accuracy and exceptional musicianship on what is perhaps the orchestra’s most exposed instrument, died on September 15 at his home in Baltimore after a two-year struggle with cancer. He was 73 years old.
Mr. Kain, who joined the orchestra in 1966 and performed with it until his illness forced him to take a leave of absence two years ago, became for most of its audience the most perdurable icon in the BSO’s history. His arrival came only two years before the appointment as music director of Sergiu Comissiona, who was to transform the BSO from a little-known ensemble into a nationally respected orchestra. And Mr. Kain’s tenure continued through the music directorships of David Zinman, Yuri Temirkanov and, currently, Marin Alsop. Mr. Kain was the rock whose undiminished presence amidst the winds and waters of change was a like a pledge of the orchestra’s continued existence and excellence.
For most of the BSO’s audience he was always among the most fascinating musicians to observe. For one thing, Mr. Kain and his timpani (also known as kettle drums) were always at the back of the stage, dead center – a presence made all the more visible when, during Zinman’s tenure, the orchestra began to perform on risers. Even during long passages in which the timpani were not called upon, Mr. Kain was frequently, even at the back of the stage, the cynosure for all eyes -- arms crossed, relaxed, yet attentive to all that surrounded him. When he began to prepare, he leaned close to the timpani skins, tapped them, and listened for the required tone. With his mallets in hand, his whole body would uncoil as he struck quickly, efficiently, precisely, to produce sounds that were by turns shocking, exhilarating, and – this was the important part -- wholly musical. Whether in the thundering thumps of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the passionate outbursts of unrequited love in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the eerie atmosphere created by sliding between tones in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, or the warlike, battlefield evoking, rhythmic figures of the Sibelius Violin Concerto’s finale, Mr. Kain always seemed to come up with exactly the sound that audiences responded to and that conductors wanted to hear.
During his tenure as music director, David Zinman called Mr. Kain the “lynchpin for the sound and rhythm” he wanted for his distinctive performances of the Beethoven symphonies. And Zinman’s successor, Yuri Temirkanov – a frequent guest conductor of the world’s greatest orchestras – called Mr. Kain “the best [timpanist]” he had ever worked with.
Shortly before his resignation as music director, Mr. Temirkanov was overheard telling a friend that if he could take anything or anyone back to Russia’s St. Petersburg with him, it would be Mr. Kain.
Unlike other gifted timpanists and percussion players who often play jazz or rock or music for small ensembles, Mr. Kain was – at least in his professional career – strictly devoted to symphonic music. And while he had many interests outside of music – he was a superb tennis player and a passionate baseball fan – it could be said that symphonic music was the love of Mr. Kain’s life. He was born in 1939 and grew up on Staten Island in New York City and began attending the concerts of the New York Philharmonic as a youngster with his father. Mr. Kain treasured the program books from those concerts and they testified to his having heard some of the greatest musicians working 60 years ago – conductors like Dmitri Mitropoulos and Bruno Walter, violinists like Jascha Heifetz and Zino Francescatti and pianists like Robert Casadesus and Wilhelm Backhaus. It was a time when there was much more latitude in interpretation than is currently the case. And it was openness to different interpretive styles and demands, which, according to Mr. Temirkanov and Mr. Zinman, made him such a pleasure for conductors to work with.
After leaving New York City, Mr. Kain studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where he studied with William Street, and went on to do graduate study with Vic Firth, the principal timpanist of the Boston Symphony, at the New England Conservatory and at the Tanglewood Institute. Before joining the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1966, Mr. Kain was a percussionist with the San Antonio Symphony.
Mr. Kain is survived by his wife, Susan, his daughter, Heather, his sister, Sheila, and two grandchildren, James and Claire.
By Stephen Wigler