Here’s to Harvey Phillips, the patron saint of tuba players. It was his idea, in 1974, to assemble an all-tuba orchestra for a Christmas concert at the Rockefeller Center ice rink.
Phillips wanted to honor his tuba teacher, William J. Bell, who was born on Christmas in 1902. Bell had performed with John Philip Sousa and was a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. His favorite Bach chorale, “Come, Sweet Death,” was a highlight of the ice-rink concert.
Tuba players are a jolly lot, however. “Low-brass players tend to have a good sense of humor and a real love of what they do,” says Gary Viebranz, senior lecturer in music and director of instrumental ensembles at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. “There’s a real camaraderie there.”
The concert’s jauntier tunes – “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells” and “Fum, Fum, Fum” – proved a good fit for the instruments, which almost always are exiled to an orchestra’s back row. TubaChristmas became a tradition, with annual concerts in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Penn State Behrend hosted its first TubaChristmas concert in 2001. More than 70 musicians gather for the annual event, which this year will be held on Saturday, Dec. 7, in McGarvey Commons. The 12:30 p.m. concert is free and open to the public.
(Area tuba and euphonium musicians are invited to join the performance. Rehearsals will be held on site the morning of Dec. 7. To register, call 814-898-6289 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Viebranz coordinates the program with help from guest directors Daniel Burdick, of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; and Ron Stitt and Lowell Hepler, of Allegheny College. The four also will perform in their tuba quartet, UnderCurrents.
Tuba carols are arranged in the style of a men’s chorus. It’s a full, hearty sound, and a fun twist on a hum-along repertoire.
For the musicians, it’s an opportunity to show the full range of an instrument that is given little to do in a traditional symphony. “For this one concert,” Viebranz says, “everybody gets to play the melody. Everybody gets to play harmony.
“You’re in the spotlight,” he says. “You’re not in the back, behind the woodwinds. And the players rise to that.”