HEAVY METAL CHRISTMAS CAROLS. Free `TubaChristmas' concerts feature `low blowers' of all ages across the US

ONE tuba is enough for a small marching band. But when 100 tubas gather in one spot for a Christmas celebration, it's bound to start people wondering. What are they going to play? Will it be loud? Will we even like it? These thoughts must have crossed the minds of shoppers at Quincy Market here, who huddled under umbrellas and craned their necks to glimpse the gleaming brass bells, all facing front and awaiting the signal.

A sprightly, gray-haired conductor stepped to the podium with all the serious intent of Sir Georg Solti - except for his oversize red scarf and flopping pompon hat. With the lift of his baton, all tubists' eyes were upon him, all lips poised on their mouthpieces.

When he gave the cue, out came the most curious mixture of low-lying rumbles this side of a subway station. But there was no need to cover the ears. It was ``O Come, All Ye Faithful'' in rich, reverberating four-part harmony. The only thing that may have been louder was the applause and whistling of the crowd afterward.

For the second year, Boston has joined the growing number of American cities that offer free ``TubaChristmas'' concerts.

From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, ``low blowers'' of all ages can been heard en masse, bellowing out Christmas carols on all kinds of tubas - from body-encircling sousaphones to smaller euphoniums.

``The sound is unbelievable - I didn't expect it to be as musical as it was,'' said Donna Montagna, who came to hear her high school son play his tuba. Son Joe said he thought the group sounded good despite the cold weather. Tubists hugged their ice-cold instruments for nearly two hours, belting out such favorites as ``Joy to the World,'' and ``Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.''

``The tuba sucks all the heat out of you - it's like a reverse radiator,'' said Neal Stone, who showed his skill at playing with mittens on.

Fortunately, no drizzle found its way down a single bell, thanks to the mall's glass overhang.

David Jeynes of New Hampshire, whose jacket read ``Hollis Town Band,'' said it was crucial to keep his sousaphone mouthpiece warm in his back pocket. If the temperature plunges below freezing, he said, the valves will freeze.

Boston's ``TubaChristmas'' orchestra included beginners on up to professionals, and ages ranged from 12 to 81 years.

``I've only been playing for two or three years - ever since I retired,'' said Arthur Hall of Salem, Mass. ``But I used to play in high school,'' he said. ``It's fun - that's the main thing.''

Besides praising the season, ``TubaChristmas'' gives players a chance to publicly proclaim their allegiance to a ``misunderstood'' instrument.

The biggest stereotype, said tubist Bob Rowe, is ``that tubas can only play two notes: `ump' and `pah' - and then you repeat the second one! But the tuba can play anything a trumpet can play.'' Mr. Rowe is an alumnus of the University of Massachusetts marching band.

``Tuba players are really a cult,'' said Paul Marotta, director of public relations at Boston University, which co-sponsored the event. ``They don't get much chance to play melodies very often.... So they come out in droves then they get the chance.''

In Boston, after a rousing selection of traditional carols by the whole ensemble, the Boston University Tuba Quartet took center stage. It dashed off an arrangement of Bach's Fugue in G minor, replete with runs, trills, and weaving counterpoint.

``It's a nice piece because people know it, and it's a chance to be flashy - it does have a lot of notes,'' said James O'Dell, the quartet's co-founder and conductor of bands at the university. The group travels throughout New England, playing everything from jazz and ragtime to Renaissance dances and Schubert songs.

``We are always received well - and with a lot of surprise, because people don't know the instrument is capable of such sounds,'' he said.

Mr. O'Dell explained that every ``TubaChristmas'' commemorates the birthday of William Bell - the ``father of the tuba'' - who was born on Christmas Day. He was the first one to play the tuba as a solo instrument, transcribing flute and clarinet pieces and making recordings, O'Dell said. It was Bell's student Harvey Phillips, a professor of music at Indiana University, who organized the first ``TubaChristmas'' in New York City in 1974.

Today, Mr. Phillips travels around the country, making guest appearances at ``TubaChristmas'' concerts, all sponsored by the Harvey Phillips Foundation. He visited the celebration in New York last Sunday, where more than 400 tuba players gathered under the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Some instrumentalists considered the event worthy of a ``pilgrimage'' and came from as far away as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania to participate.

The Boston performance attracted tuba players from all over New England, many of whom brought families and friends to cheer them on. Players looped red and green garlands across their sousaphone bells.

Conductor Roger Voisin, veteran trumpeter of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said it's a wonderful feeling to get together with people you don't know in the spirit of unity.

``Music has a way of doing that. It goes along with the spirit of Christmas.'' By concert's end, he said, ``it's as though everyone's been playing together for years.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.