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Remembering Louisville Orchestra timpanist James Rago

Timpanist James Rago played with the Louisville Orchestra for five and half decades.
ONeil Arnold
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Timpanist James Rago played with the Louisville Orchestra for five and half decades.

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

For five and a half decades, audiences at Louisville Orchestra concerts experienced just a bit more thunder thanks to the talented timpanist. 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 Rago joined the Louisville Orchestra at an auspicious time. In the 70s and 80s, the ensemble recorded lots of percussion-heavy 20th century music. 

Here’s a playlist highlighting Rago’s time with the orchestra. 

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2DTP6ODBH3tUYk1UFCF8Bc?si=33277d4dc5594817

First Edition Records, the Louisville Orchestra’s own label, was an iconoclast. With its focus on music by living composers, many of the “firsts” are the only recordings of these pieces. As the timpanist, Rago’s playing will remain a critical part of the almanac of 20th century American music. 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 country’s top orchestral percussion sections. He passed that knowledge on to his music students at the University of Louisville for 30 years. 

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, WFPL News’ partner station.

“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.”

Last year, even after his supposed retirement from the orchestra, Rago filmed a video introducing the timpani to Louisville audiences. His answers to such questions as “what is a roll?” to “why do timpanists switch mallets?” put his kindness and good nature on full display. 

The Louisville Orchestra dedicated last weekend’s performances to Rago, with plans for a more formal tribute to be announced at a later date.