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In New Concerto, The Tuba Gets Its Due 01:54
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Gunther Schuller conducts the tuba concerto with the tuba player taking a prime spot. (Michael Lutch/Courtesy Boston University)
Gunther Schuller conducts the tuba concerto with the tuba player taking a prime spot. (Michael Lutch/Courtesy Boston University)

Big changes often start with small steps, as recent events have shown us. At Boston University Tuesday night, one of those changes may have begun with a symphony orchestra, a composer and a new concerto for the tuba.

Long consigned to second class citizenship, the tuba rose up to its moment in the sun Tuesday night, thanks to conductor Gunther Schuller.

So let's get the jokes out of the way. Let's face it, even the name, tuba, is funny. I mean: You have piano, viola, piccolo and the "too-ba." It's the instrument for the back of the house.

For comedian Martin Mull, the tuba is the perfect substitute for dueling banjos.

Of course, as every member of a high school marching band knows, you can't have a football game without a tuba — or two, or four. But as soon as the season's over, the tuba is like the non-essential help that gets to go home early when it snows.

Enter Gunther Schuller.

"Do you feel sorry for the tuba?" I asked Schuller.

"No, I celebrate the tuba, it's an incredible sound, depending on what you do with it," Schuller replied.

If there's a man to elevate the tuba, it's Schuller — maestro, horn player, classical and jazz composer, Pulitzer prize winner, MacArthur genius and big time too-ba fan.

"People have finally understood, God this instrument can be lyrical, beautiful, run around like mad. I exploit that in this piece," he said.

"This piece," called "Concerto No. 2 for Tuba and Orchestra," proves the tuba can do anything the violin can do, Schuller said. Strong words for an instrument once known for giving the "oom" to the "pa."

The tuba sees new light with conductor Gunther Schuller, and the Boston University Symphony. (Zyada/Flickr)
The tuba sees new light with conductor Gunther Schuller, and the Boston University Symphony. (Zyada/Flickr)

At other times, the tuba can seem just tubby. As when Jazz composer Anthony Braxton performed "Composition No. 19" for 100 tubas in 2006. But it sounds more like a cross between whale calls and planetary indigestion.

Schuller's concerto features soloist Mike Roylance, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a music professor at Boston University. And no, he's not the pudgy kid who got stuck with the tuba. This night he's the athletic lead — for a change.

"Some pieces I'll play, like Dvorak's 'Ninth Symphony, New World Symphony,' it's 45 minutes of work and I play 14 notes out of that," Roylance said. "But here I am the quarterback, the front line person for the entire time."

And so, in a world premiere, with this former drum and bugle corps tuba player in the lead, and the Boston University Symphony on stage, Schuller has moved the tuba to the front of the house.

Special thanks to Michael Culler, engineer at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University, for help with this story.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that "Composition No. 19" was performed in 2006.

This program aired on February 16, 2011.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

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