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For five and a half decades, audiences at Louisville Orchestra concerts experienced just a bit more thunder thanks to the talent of timpanist James Rago. The longest-tenured member of the orchestra, Rago moved to Louisville from New York straight from studies at Juilliard in 1967. 

The timpanist in an orchestra is always quite visible, being upstage and surrounded by copper bowls. But in Louisville at the time the position would be a particularly important musical anchor, given the orchestra’s label First Edition Records and its focus on new music – where percussion is more often heavily featured. Here’s Rago with the orchestra in works by Karel Husa, Vincent Persichetti, and Chou Wen-Chung.

Rago’s playing will not only remain a critical part of the almanac of 20th century American music thanks to First Edition Records, but he was also among the last of the school of timpanists taught by famed pedagogues Saul Goodman and Anthony Cirone, whose tutelage shaped the sound of many of the USA’s top orchestral percussion sections. And this knowledge was passed on to Rago’s students at the University of Louisville for 30 years. 

James Rago on timpani in white tie at Whitney Hall onstage

photo: Jayna Fox

Remembrances from Rago’s fellow musicians on social media were fond recollections of a trusted colleague with a wonderful sense of humor, with more than one mentioning times of “uncontrollable laughter.”

Conductor Teddy Abrams noted Rago’s continuation of the traditions and culture of the Louisville Orchestra in a statement to the ensemble members, which he shared with WUOL:

“The longevity of his tenure alone would be a marvel, but it was Jim’s exceptional musicianship and artistry that made him an icon both in the LO and throughout the community. Anyone who watched Jim play would immediately recognize the great gusto and commitment in every note he struck on the timpani. All of us are thinking of Jim and his family right now; fortunately we have so many special and joyous memories of our time together, which will surely never be forgotten by any of us who were lucky enough to know him.”

Rago’s kind nature and his joy at playing were on full display a year ago in a filmed introduction to the timpani. After his supposed retirement from the orchestra, Rago continued to be a dedicated participant in this programming – answering everything from “What is a roll?” to “why do timpanists switch mallets?” Or as he put it, “Why can’t they make up their mind?” And of course, playing multiple etudes.

James Rago, Louisville’s timpanist for over half a century, died October 13 at the age of 79.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for 90.5 WUOL