Click here for the archive of profiles that takes you behind the scenes with some of the featured performers who bring their special talents to Emmanuel Music.
When timpanist John Grimes came to Boston in January 1973, the Key West native had just arrived from Caracas and found himself in the dead of a New England winter. But life improved quickly when he saw a newspaper listing about the weekly Emmanuel Music Bach cantatas played in the Emmanuel Church Sunday services. Grimes went to listen on his first weekend, loved what he heard, and asked Craig Smith if he needed a timpanist. Soon after, Grimes began a 15-year stint as an Emmanuel Music regular.
Grimes always tailors his playing to the specific requirements of the music, the ensemble, and the venue. "It’s essential to play Bach cantatas with enhanced articulation rather than voluminous sonority," he says. "And because this is a small chamber orchestra, it’s important to use smaller timpani that match the size and style of the ensemble." Grimes also stresses the importance of rehearsing in his head. "I imagine the acoustics of the space, because often rehearsal time in the venue is so short."
Grimes notes that the cantatas he plays usually celebrate festival days in the liturgy. "Bach includes timpani and trumpets in a cantata for heroic or triumphal effect, and it’s glorious when these sounds are added. They uplift the whole experience."
Some people discover their calling early in life, and Grimes is one. In his Key West neighborhood, an African-American burial society would march by his house most Sundays, playing a funeral dirge on the way to the cemetery and When the Saints Come Marching In on the way back. "I was mesmerized by the bass drum and begged my mother for a drum. She got me a toy drum – I was about three years old – and then I’d wait for the band so I could march along with them as the drummer egged me on." By the time he chose an instrument in middle school, Grimes knew what he wanted. "Drums were what I loved, and drums were what would be my ticket off the island."
When Grimes went to the University of Miami to study music, he did more than study – he landed good musical jobs. He played percussion in the Miami Philharmonic and got other jobs playing in Miami Beach hotels for popular singers like Bobby Darin and Perry Como. Later, when Grimes first pursued his graduate studies at the University of California, San Diego, he soon got a percussionist job with the San Diego Symphony. "I was fortunate to get these experiences so early in life," Grimes says. "There is nothing like cutting your teeth under the batons of musically demanding and scrutinizing conductors."
Grimes temporarily left school to become the timpanist for the Venezuelan National Orchestra. "Spanish was my first language, because my Cuban grandparents, mother, and I spoke Spanish at home. So I was able to immerse myself in the Venezuelan culture as well as the music." But after two years Grimes moved to Boston to perfect his timpani studies. He became a student of the world-famous Boston Symphony timpanist Vic Firth at New England Conservatory. To broaden his education Grimes also studied with the Cleveland Orchestra timpanist Cloyd Duff. "Firth and Duff were very different timpanists, and they gave me a tremendous variety of input. I was able to pick and choose and find my own voice," Grimes says. "I try to take a similar approach with my own students at The Boston Conservatory. I want them to listen to ideas and concepts and find their own voices."
The Boston move enabled Grimes to establish a successful freelance career. In addition to Emmanuel Music, he played with the Boston Ballet and Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, and he substituted at the Boston Symphony and the Pops. Then, around 1980, Boston Baroque hired Grimes to play on period instruments. He has now played for Boston Baroque and for the Handel and Haydn Society for over 30 years. He has also long played for Cantata Singers and has returned to Emmanuel Music after a hiatus since new Artistic Director Ryan Turner sought him out. "I very much enjoy playing for Ryan. He’s an energetic and meticulous conductor who knows what he wants and who’s also respectful of what we’re trying to do."
Nearly every freelance musician needs to find supplementary work to pay the bills, and Grimes’s extra-musical career has been particularly innovative. He became a Spanish-English interpreter in the U.S. Immigration Court and from there a paralegal in a firm specializing in immigration law. "My job was to listen to clients who didn’t speak English well and to tell their stories of suffering and fear of persecution in a presentable way for the court. It was mostly a writing job, but I learned a lot about the law in the process."
Grimes then served for nine years as Vice President of Boston Musicians’ Association, where he was responsible for administering recording contracts and walking organizations through the union’s contract requirements – for example, Emmanuel Music with its final Lorraine Hunt Lieberson CD, Lorraine at Emmanuel. "In this job it helped to be mindful about legal language, to know how to read and apply contracts, and to help others work with contracts," he says.
In fact, Grimes’s extra-musical work almost took center stage. "At one point I actually took the LSATs and got into law school, but my heart won out," Grimes says. "My auxiliary work supports what I love to do – being on stage, playing timpani."