The tuba takes center stage at 'Tuba Christmas'
St. Paul, Minn. — As holiday music goes, it doesn't get much lower than this. 120 musicians playing the lowest of the brass instruments--the euphonium, the baritone, the sousaphone and the tuba--gathered Sunday for an annual Christmas concert.
'Tuba Christmas', held yearly in the sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul, stakes a bass clef musical claim to the holidays.
Susan Schevenius brought a baritone, two students and their horns to the concert last night.
"Well, in our band, the tubas and the baritones and the euphoniums don't get the melody a lot. They're in the backgound. And this is an event for them to shine, because they get the main part," she said.
And that's the Tuba Christmas story, in a nutshell.
The horn's presence is better known in music like sea chanties and polkas. Usually, composers and arrangers keep their tuba requirements to one or two. At most.
But the horn also had sort of a patron saint in America -- a tubist named William Bell. Bell played for the likes of John Phillips Sousa and the New York Philharmonic. He was the second University tuba professor in America. Ever.
Harvey Phillips was a student of Bell's at Julliard and now is a retired music professor. He succeeded Bell at Indiana University and felt his mentor hadn't got the recognition he deserved.
"He was considered by Arturo Toscanini as the greatest tubist in the world," Phillips said.
But when Bell died in the summer of 1971, Phillips noted that Bell's life had an unusual aspect -- besides playing tuba. He'd been born on Christmas Day, 1902.
To Phillips, it seemed like a legitimate claim for the tuba to some of the best known music ever, some of it dating back to before the tuba was even invented.
So in 1974, Phillips organized the first tuba holiday concert on the skating rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Three hundred of Bell's students showed up to pay tribute, and Tuba Christmas played its first bars.
It's since spread to 250 American cities, to Canada and Switzerland, and even Iraq.
The holiday started in the Twin Cities decades ago, at the Rosedale Mall in Roseville. It's been at Central Presbyterian in St. Paul for the last four years. Kathy Handford is the music director there and invited the group to play.
It's a once-a-year event, and players meet and rehearse for just an hour before the show. But Handford said a kindred tuba spirit adds to the harmony.
"Brass players are always one big happy family, and here the sousaphones from the University of Minnesota, and usually the come over on the city bus," she said. "They twirl their tubas down the street and it's a good time. And when people come in the door, they're not quite sure what to expect, but after they step inside the sanctuary, everyone is smiling."
And singing. The tradition at Central Presbyterian includes a second verse of every song, so the audience can sing along.
The St. Paul concert is actually the fourth Minnesota Tuba Christmas show this year, following concerts in Morris, Mankato, and Northfield. You can still hear tubists tooting their horns Friday night at Tuba Christmas in the Pioneer Place Theater in St. Cloud.
- Morning Edition, 12/14/2009, 8:45 a.m.