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Meet the Musicians

Meet a Musician: Timothy Zavadil

Timothy Zavadil, wearing black standing and looking away from the camera while holding a bass clarinet.
Timothy Zavadil | Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

Minnesota Orchestra musician since: 2007
Position: Clarinet and Bass Clarinet
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
Education: Northwestern University and DePaul University

How did you get your start in music, and then find your way into the bass clarinet world?

My first instrument was guitar, and when I was 6 or 7, I was sure I’d end up joining the band Kiss—although time has run out on that dream, since their final tour is ending this month. By fourth grade I wanted to play saxophone, but my uncle, a professional trumpet player, advised my parents to start me on clarinet. That turned out to be prophetic, since clarinet is the best “root” instrument for branching out to other woodwinds. A few years later I was looking through stacks of clarinets in the band room—alto, bass, E-flat—and I wanted to bring them all home. That whet my appetite for exploring different kinds of clarinet, although I didn’t really start bass clarinet until college. I also love playing basset horn, and saxophone is my stress-relief instrument.

Can you tell us about your involvement with the Cuban American Youth Orchestra?

The Cuban American Youth Orchestra, or CAYO, is a Minneapolis-based non-profit focused on youth cultural diplomacy through music, founded by Rena Kraut—a regular substitute clarinetist with the Minnesota Orchestra—after our 2015 Cuba tour. About 10 Orchestra musicians are involved with CAYO, and as director of operations, I do anything from planning tours to making copies when someone forgets their music. Last summer we put together a 20-piece orchestra of Cuban and American students for the International Day of Music at Orchestra Hall, and they performed a piece by a young Cuban composer, Jorge Amado. In 2019 we organized a 75-piece orchestra of American and Cuban students in Havana, and brought 10 musicians from the Orchestra as faculty. Next May we’ll be back in Havana with another large orchestra of Cuban and American high school students. The point is not only to make good music, but to make connections with people from a culture that’s just 90 miles off the coast, but in a different world in terms of infrastructure and resources.

Talk us through the experience of performing Geoffrey Gordon’s bass clarinet concerto Prometheus.

Playing a bass clarinet concerto with a major orchestra is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! The Minnesota Orchestra was one of three orchestras to commission it, and we performed the U.S. premiere in April 2019. I did lots of mental preparation in studying the score and getting ready to perform in front of my colleagues, plus logistical things like getting a sculptor friend to make me a bass clarinet peg that was long enough so I could stand while playing. Geoffrey’s music is about telling stories, and this concerto was based on Kafka’s version of the Prometheus story. You can hear all sorts of details, like trumpets depicting an eagle pecking at Prometheus’ liver. Things got nerve-wracking for me during the preparation, since I was recovering from a rib injury that winter—fortunately I didn’t have things as rough as Prometheus! I’m very grateful to Geoffrey, to Osmo Vänskä for conducting, and to the Orchestra’s administration for jumping into the project wholeheartedly. 

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not making music?

Lots of family time—I have three kids who are 16, 22 and 24, and my partner has two kids as well. In summertime I like biking and walking to the Mississippi River, and in winter I do some cross-country skiing and trips to the North Shore. And I’m always reading a book. Some recent favorites are You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy, Strike Me Down by Mindy Mejia—a fun read set in Minneapolis—Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Stolen Focus by Johann Hari.

What interesting experiences come from having a last name that starts with “Z”?

In college, I played saxophone in the horn section of a rock band, and we all had last names that started with Z (Zavadil, Zemataitis, and Zych)—we were, of course, known as “Z Horns.” And in one of my last grad school classes, everyone had to give a final presentation, and my topic was the relationship between the musicians union and symphony orchestras. Because it was my final semester, and I was pretty much ready to be done with school, I wasn’t as prepared for the presentation as I could have been. However, because the professor chose to go in alphabetical order, he never got to me, and I merely had to hand in my sloppily handwritten notecards. I ended up getting an A in the class!