SF Symphony percussionist Jacob Nissly takes center stage with 'physically challenging' new concerto

SF Symphony percussionist Jacob Nissly takes center stage with 'physically challenging' new concerto
SF Symphony Principal Percussionist Jake Nissly in action. | Photo: Courtesy of SF Symphony
By Cedric Westphal - Published on October 17, 2019.

As the principal percussionist for the SF Symphony, Jacob Nissly usually stands in the back of the orchestra. But this week, he'll set up his gear right in front, as the soloist in a new concerto for percussion: "Losing Earth," by Los Angeles-based composer Adam Schoenberg.

A South Beach resident, Nissly has lived in San Francisco since joining the orchestra in 2013, after stints as the principal percussionist for the Detroit and Cleveland Symphonies.

"I like urban living, at least for now, even though it's a little challenging for a percussionist," he says. "I carry a lot of gear and I make a lot of noise."

Nissly grew up in Iowa, where, as he puts it, "there was not a lot going on in classical music." He started as a rock-and-roll drummer, but had to start playing classical music in seventh grade in order to retain the right to practice at school.

"I didn't learn to read music until age 11 or 12," he said, noting that he was converted to classical after hearing the Boston Symphony play Shostakovich. "There was a super-loud to super-soft snare drum roll, and I thought, 'Holy cow, you can do that with a drum?'" 

After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in jazz and classical music, Nissly attended Juilliard, where he focused on "showing off the other side of percussion — the subtle, soft, melodic, lyrical ability of these instruments. If you play [Ravel's] 'Bolero,' for example, the challenge and the fun is how humanely soft we can play that piece." 

At Juilliard, Nissly first met Schoenberg, then a composition student (and no relation to the composer Arnold Schoenberg). Their first meeting was inauspicious: Nissly was playing a piece by Schoenberg that called for oxygen tanks, which Nissly had to personally move onto the stage.

"I was annoyed at the composer, but that trained me well for my job," he recalls, laughing. The pair are now friends and collaborators.

Jake Nissly (right) and Adam Schoenberg. | Photo: Cody Pickens/SF Symphony

Nissly has had few opportunities to be a symphony soloist. He's only done it once before in San Francisco, in the 2016 Darius Milhaud concerto, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

Percussion soloists are limited to a very small repertoire — Milhaud, Joseph Schwantner, Avner Dorman, Tan Dun's water concerto. "There are not a lot of percussion concerti, and those that do exist are not my favorite pieces," Nissly said.

So when he was approached by the Symphony to commission a new concerto, he jumped on the opportunity to "add something to what is not a huge collection," and reached out to Schoenberg. The pair spent more than a year working together on the project, flying back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

Performed on a hybrid drum set with a xylophone, "Losing Earth" features marching band percussion and improvisations that rely on Nissly's jazz background. But Nissly said it's "tonal, if nothing else. It's something that you have the opportunity to walk away [from] whistling a tune."

Performing the piece is "very challenging physically," Nissly said. One of the key challenges for a percussionist is to effectively lay out the different instruments on the stage, and get from one to the other in time and without tripping.

"There's an almost choreographic element ... I'm going to do a lot of multi-tasking, that's a huge element of what I do musically," Nissly said. "I'll be sweating by the end of this one — it's a cardiovascular workout."

The SF Symphony will play pieces by Schoenberg, Boulanger and Mussorgsky tonight, October 17, through Saturday, October, 19, at 8 p.m., at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall (201 Van Ness Ave.) Tickets start at $20.