Leonardo Rodrigo Soto Jr. had a teen-aged dilemma: Should he make a living by hitting things or by kicking them?
On one hand, drums were in his blood: His father plays timbales in La Sonora de Tommy Rey, a Chilean band now blasting through its fourth decade.
On the other foot, he was good enough to play minor-league soccer (or fútbol, as it’s called in his native Santiago).
Luckily, he chose the hands-on approach. You’ll hear the results Friday, when he stands in front of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra at the season’s last KnightSounds concert.
You’ll usually find Soto behind other musicians, working on his four or five timpani with aplomb. (He’ll be there for the other six pieces in the show.) But he’s the soloist in “Raise the Roof,” Michael Daugherty’s one-movement concerto.
“There’s all kinds of music in there,” he says. “It starts with the feel of a medieval chant, grows more melodic, has a section like you get in a conga band – I play those eight bars with my hands, instead of the mallets – and then I come in with brushes and mariachi sticks, like Leonard Bernstein used in ‘West Side Story.’ ”
Extroverted, versatile, rhythmically inclined – the piece seems to suit him. This is a guy who often bobs in time to the music while he’s not playing, absorbing the CSO’s sound in his bones. But sometimes he can be subtle, too. Ask about important timpani solos in orchestral pieces, and Soto mentions Brahms’ First Symphony.
What, just those four opening notes? That soft, steady bum-bum-bum-bum?
“Oh, yes. If you change the color of the stroke and come down in volume, you set the tone for the woodwinds to come in. There’s a moment in the funeral march of (Beethoven’s) Eroica Symphony where one note makes a difference.”
Except for his students at Queens University of Charlotte, locals may never hear all the noises Soto can make with his hands, sticks or mallets.
His training as a percussionist included xylophone, vibes, triangle, blocks and various drums; he even accompanied Ethan Uslan in a marimba-piano score for a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.” (“Chaplin’s one of my heroes,” says the film buff. “The little guy who has nothing to lose and approaches everything with a sense of humor – I like that.”)
Falling in love with drums
His rhythmic gift manifested itself early in life, but at a cost.
“I didn’t grow up with my parents, but my dad permitted me to play around with his timbales,” he says. “I was raised by my aunt, and I’d put on a cassette of his music, pick up her knitting needles and drum along on the chairs and tables. I broke a couple of needles – and an armrest – and my dad said, ‘Get an education. Don’t just fall in love with the drums.’ ”
He did both, studying in Santiago and getting a scholarship to finish at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “I told my teacher there, ‘My dream is to stay in the United States and play with an orchestra. If you think I can do it, tell me honestly. If not, I will go back.’ He said, ‘You will stay.’ ”
Soto played for the Pittsburgh Symphony, even touring South America with it, and augmented his income by drumming in salsa bands. After stints with other orchestras, he settled in Charlotte four seasons ago. A year later, he befriended associate conductor Jacomo Bairos, who’ll lead Friday’s concert.
“Every orchestra has all-stars, and he’s one of them,” says Bairos. “He’s so consistent. … He’s the first one onstage, listening to his drums. He looks like he becomes part of the instrument, the way Yo-Yo Ma does.”
In a way, Soto does: Though the copper bowls of the drums (which Soto owns) can last forever, he has to replace drumheads. Before the season, he strips the drums completely, greasing machinery and replacing washers. He has to re-do mallets five or six times a year, cutting pieces of felt and sewing them on with Johnson & Johnson waxed dental floss.
Energy reaches up
Classical musicians often say timpanists “conduct from the rear.” As Soto explains, “Every note you play is heard. You and the music director have a direct sight line, and you glue the orchestra together. You actually slightly anticipate his downbeat, because you’re so far back that the sound has farther to travel.”
Bairos finds his friend’s presence helpful: “When I auditioned as a conductor for the Tallahassee (Fla.) Symphony this spring, their timpanist was sick. Leo flew down to play Prokofiev for me, and I felt so at ease seeing him there. His energy reaches up to meet you at the front of the stage.”
Yet Soto says “the best percussion sections go unnoticed: They contribute to the overall sound. I always tell students, ‘You’re not striking a note, you’re placing it. Don’t just be a drummer. Be a musician.”