Fred Begun, 84, virtuoso timpanist in Washington

Inspired by Gene Krupa, Fred Begun wanted to go into jazz.
Inspired by Gene Krupa, Fred Begun wanted to go into jazz. –Richard Darcey/Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Fred Begun, a Brooklyn-born Juilliard graduate who spent 48 years as principal timpanist of the National Symphony Orchestra, died Sept. 23 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 84.

He died of complications following a single-car accident three weeks ago, said his daughter, Rosalie.

Two months after graduating in 1951 with a percussion degree from the Juilliard School in New York, Mr. Begun became the timpanist for the NSO. It was a rare symphony orchestra vacancy in an era when most timpanists found jobs in radio and television studio orchestras.

His earliest ambitions were in jazz, and he was smitten by the animated playing of Gene Krupa in the 1930s and 1940s. Mr. Begun channeled that jaunty showmanship into his symphonic career; he was frequently described as a dancer behind the drums. He also favored the hep-cat jive talk favored by jazz musicians, often ending sentences with ‘‘baby.’’

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While the drummer gave thunderous interpretation of dramatic music — his blistering percussion work on Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 was likened to ‘‘Armageddon itself’’ — Mr. Begun most prided himself on modulation and eliciting graceful, melodious phrases.

He said the hardest pieces to play required the discipline to create almost no sound on the kettle drums and still provide essential girding for a symphonic work.

‘‘It’s something like this,’’ he once told The Post as he leaned over a drum and brought forth an almost silent rumble with his sticks. ‘‘That’s the opening of ‘La Mer’ by Debussy. The problem is to get the long, sustained sound . . . and keep it going absolutely pianissimo. That’s hard.’’

Fred Begun was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Europe. He grew up in Washington. At Juilliard, he studied under Saul Goodman, celebrated timpanist with the New York Philharmonic.

His first wife, Clair Berger, whom he married in 1957, died in 1990. His second wife, Marian Williams, died in 1999.

He leaves his companion of seven years, Jane Faust; two daughters from his first marriage, Julie of Bethesda, Md., and Rosalie of Alexandria, Va.; a brother, Eugene of Silver Spring, Md.; and a grandson.

Mr. Begun wryly suggested why the percussionist served a vital function in a symphonic orchestra. The timpani, he said, are ‘‘used at very strategic moments to keep the audience awake.’’

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