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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A new tuba concerto.

I just finished watching a live stream of what should have been a major world premiere - that of Gunther Schuller's Concerto No. 2 for Tuba and Orchestra. The work was the last major commission of Harvey Phillips, whose importance as a musician and champion of the doofiest of all orchestral instruments cannot be overstated. Phillips was single-handedly responsible for bringing into existence probably about 65% of the music written for solo tuba in various contexts, some of which is actually worth hearing. The man was a giant and a huge inspiration to every tuba player - it's unfortunate that he looked so much like a tuba player. A very nice profile from the early 1980s can be seen below:

Anyway, with all that aside, Phillps' last commission before he died last year was for the work premiered tonight by Mike Roylance with the Boston University Orchestra, conducted by the composer. A preview article in the Boston Globe mentioned some of the background, and quoted Roylance, who is the principal tubist for the Boston Symphony, as saying it was the most difficult piece he ever had to perform.

It sounded difficult to play for sure. I can give nothing but credit to Roylance for his performance tonight of a piece whose technical demands were beyond most musicians' reaches regardless of their instrument. I have given my share of world premieres, too, and it's a tough task no matter what - you don't have the interpretive ideas of previous performers to fall back on, and you have to find the music in the ink that's placed in front of you on top of finding the technique and practicing all the licks. And it's a huge responsibility. If you blow the first performance, the chance of a second or third performance diminishes rapidly.

Well, at least as Roulance and Schuller performed the work, I am sad to say that I wouldn't expect many more performances. It's a stuffy, uninteresting work that takes itself far too seriously, and has little to offer the soloist other than an ingratiating quote of Stravinsky's Petroushka in the first movement (that quote is from a 15 second long tuba solo, one of the most prominent in the orchestral literature, that tuba players start working on in high school and seem never to stop). In all honesty, tuba solos are still kind of a new thing, and they have to serve a function beyond the composer's wishes for a while longer; they have to help audiences get over the prejudices they have about an instrument that's much more flexible, lyrical, and enjoyable to listen to than its reputation implies, and they have to make tuba players want to lobby for further performances. Schuller's concerto is stodgy, muddily orchestrated, and unforgiving, and frankly it's not going to be heard again.

It's really too bad, because serious tuba players have a serious problem. We play an instrument that is every bit as nimble as a trumpet, with a wider range and a lovely, dark color that makes for great solos - but we have to prove it. After years and years of spending more time as salesmen than artists, it's colored the whole tradition of tuba playing. A basic of tenet of tubism, if you will, is that it's more important to prove the worth of the performer than to make music. So now you get fantastic musicians with insane technical abilities and the ability to turn a phrase better than most violinists playing things like this all the time:

Some day I hope that will change. I dream of a day that I no longer play weird music on a tuba - I just play weird music. Until then, the best we have, from a musical and marketing standpoint, is still Ralph Vaughan Williams' Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra, which, lovely as it is, remains the semi-humorous eccentricity of a crotchety old English octogenarian. Still, lovely:

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