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    This originally appeared in the 2019 Best of Louisville issue of Louisville Magazine.
     

    It’s easy to spot the timpani player — in the back of the orchestra, wailing away on a set of copper kettledrums.

    Louisville Orchestra timpanist Jim Rago certainly gets in his share of rolling thunder and booming cannon fire. But the real treat is to listen, and see, the way he weaves his timpani notes with the other players, creating the multi-textured richness of classical music. Or, even better, when the music is at its softest, and Rago leans in close, four kettledrums around him, and barely touches bass notes at the bottom end of the quietest chord.

    When Rago studied at Juilliard in New York, his director was a young Jorge Mester. After Mester took the music director job with the Louisville Orchestra in 1967, succeeding Robert Whitney, he asked Rago to come along. (In 2014, Teddy Abrams became the LO’s director following Mester’s second turn at the helm.) “It took me about three days to get down here,” says Rago, who grew up in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and has been with the LO more than 50 years, making him the longest-tenured player. “I was a city boy. I didn’t know anything about maps and highways.” Rago works out his intricate techniques in a practice room at his home in Prospect. It doesn’t have a lot of decoration except for some pictures of New York Yankees greats, topped by a picture his sister gave him of Mickey Mantle.

    A local craftsman turns hard maple into mallets that fit Rago’s hands. Rago makes the drumheads himself, beginning with felt wrapping, then sewing on wool covers of varying softness.

    Rago grabs sticks he’s topped with wooden heads to sound the dance rhythm in Samson and Delilah. Poor Samson doesn’t have a chance. “They’ll be able to hear this up in the balcony,” Rago says. “It jumps out like crazy.”
     

    This originally appeared in the 2019 Best of Louisville issue of Louisville Magazine. Read more.

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    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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