The timpani provides an essential rhythmic pulse for the orchestra. In the case of Everett “Vic” Firth, the iconic timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1956 to 2002, that pulse was artful, well- integrated, and renowned on both sides of the footlights.
“I believe he is the single greatest percussionist anywhere in the world,” former BSO music director Seiji Ozawa said in 1995. “Every performance that Vic gives is informed with incredible musicianship, elegance, and impeccable timing.”
Violinist Joseph Silverstein, who as the BSO concertmaster played with him for over two decades, recalled the importance of maintaining eye contact with Mr. Firth at key moments during performances. “For instance in Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring,’ when we got to the ‘Danse sacrale’ at the end, the conductor could have put his stick down,” Silverstein said. “Vic was leading the orchestra.”
Mr. Firth, who also taught at New England Conservatory from 1952 to 1995 and founded a highly successful drumsticks company, died in his Boston home Sunday of pancreatic cancer. He was 85.
“When Vic Firth retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2002, his place in the BSO’s pantheon of legendary figures was already firmly established,” said the orchestra’s managing director, Mark Volpe. “His singular musicianship — which resulted in exquisite and inspiring playing, time after time over his 50 years with the BSO — will live on in the memories of all of us who were so lucky to hear him play during his illustrious tenure. . . . Beyond that, he was somehow the heartbeat of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — and one never forgets that.”
When BSO music director Charles Munch hired Mr. Firth as a percussionist in 1952, he was the orchestra’s youngest member, at 21. He assumed the position of timpanist four years later, playing under four music directors and countless guest conductors over the years.
“I listened very, very closely to the great players in the orchestra, people like harpist Bernard Zighera, cellist Samuel Mayes, violist Joseph de Pasquale,” Mr. Firth said of his early BSO years, in a 2002 interview with the Globe. “They made wonderful sounds on their instruments that I wanted to make on my own. I had to find a way to put those sounds in my head into the instrument and into the overall orchestral atmosphere.”
During that period he became known for subtle choices of particular sticks to render specific passages in a score. Silverstein recalled that the late British conductor Sir Colin Davis, in particular, queried Mr. Firth about his choices so that he could convey the wisdom of “the gentleman in Boston” to timpanists in other orchestras.
Mr. Firth’s playing has been captured on many recordings, including a well-known Munch-led account of Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, and Davis’s own cycle of Sibelius symphonies recorded with the BSO. Describing a live broadcast recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Hamlet” Fantasy-Overture under Leopold Stokowski, the New York Times singled out Mr. Firth’s playing as “a miracle of precision and ferocity.”
“My greatest learning tool ever was sitting behind him for 10 years and just watching him,” said the BSO’s current principal timpanist, Timothy Genis, who joined the orchestra in 1993. “His intonation, his color — he had the whole package. And he did things I had never seen before on timpani.”
Genis recalled one particular moment in a 2002 performance of a Dvorak overture led by James Levine. “Right before a certain note, Jimmy just raised an eyebrow to Vic as if to say, ‘Give me a little something here,’ and Vic was all over it. In that split second, he juiced one note and it was unbelievable. Being able to react and color a note so quickly — you just don’t see that every day. Honestly, I’ve heard a lot of great players, and I don’t think anyone could hold a candle to Vic.”
Mr. Firth was born into a musical family in Winchester and grew up in Maine. He began on his father’s instrument, the trumpet, but switched early on to percussion. He attended NEC, studying with Roman Szulc, then timpanist with the BSO, while also taking lessons with Saul Goodman, timpanist of the New York Philharmonic.
As his career advanced, Mr. Firth became unhappy with the quality of the available drumsticks and began making his own. Soon percussionists from other orchestras were asking him for sticks, and the enterprise grew into a highly successful business, founded in 1963 and now operating in more than 120 countries. In 2002, Mr. Firth was producing 100,000 pairs of drumsticks each week out of a factory based in Maine. His company merged with Zildjian, a Norwell-based cymbal and drumsticks company, in 2010.
“Through his travel with the symphony, he was able to create relationships around the world,” said Jim Doyle, vice president of Vic Firth Co., adding that the timpanist was known to arrive in a new city, pull out a phone book, and visit the local music store to discuss his sticks.
Mr. Firth’s percussion business brought him celebrity within a broader drumming world that extended well beyond the sphere of classical music. His daughters, who worked in the family business, suggested that he appear on occasion with rock bands, which Mr. Firth did. He was once reprimanded by a BSO manager for having performed in Providence with the Grateful Dead.
As news of his death spread early this week, percussionists from across many genres took to Twitter and Facebook in large numbers to pay tribute.
Mr. Firth leaves his wife, Olga; two daughters, Tracy of Walpole and Kelly DeChristopher of Scituate; and a sister, Sherrill Auld of Edgewater, Md.
Memorial services will be private. New England Conservatory plans to name a percussion studio in his honor.
Reflecting on his run of so many decades with the orchestra, Mr. Firth told an interviewer for Modern Drummer magazine in 2001 that “performing has always been an adventure, and the thrill of that adventure is still with me. Maybe I found the fountain of youth in music.”Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.