Some people look down their noses at the tuba. The oft-maligned member of the brass family is derided for its unbalanced, awkward appearance; its delegation to the back of the band; and its deep, oompah sound — which is associated with polka and other “uncool” musical genres.
But tuba fans know better. They’ve made the Kimmel Center’s free annual tuba concert — known as TubaChristmas — into one of the performing arts pavilion’s most popular events. Dozens of local professional and amateur tuba players gather every December to play holiday songs and carols in the center’s soaring atrium, to the delight of thousands (by now) of audience members eager for a hit of Yuletide festivity.
“It’s a crazy thing to think that there’s such a demand for a free tuba concert, but it’s just so darn joyful,” said Jay Wahl, the Kimmel’s producing artistic director. “You haven’t really lived until you’ve heard 80 tubas play — not play, boom — ‘Silent Night.’ ”
First offered as a single, annual holiday show at the Franklin Institute in 1990, TubaChristmas moved to the Kimmel Center atrium after the building opened in 2001. A second performance was added about three years ago. This year’s concerts are noon and 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15. On the bill are traditional Christmas and Hanukkah songs, including “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
“They do all the old chestnuts, which I really like,” said John Gibson, 68, who has made the hike in from Wynnewood for the show six times. “It’s a good way to kick off the holiday season.”
Joyce Ross of King of Prussia has enjoyed 10 TubaChristmas shows in the city and has advice for newbies: Bring something to jingle (many people end up using their car keys).
“I love different experiences, and this is pretty unique. You discover that tubas can actually create music!” said Ross, 77. “It’s delightful.”
TubaChristmas is an international happening. A tuba player/advocate named Harvey Phillips created the event in 1974 as a way of honoring tuba legend William J. Bell, who had died a few years earlier. Bell — who played in John Philip Sousa’s band, and in the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Arturo Toscanini — was born on Christmas Day 1902.
That first TubaChristmas concert was held on the ice rink of New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza and featured 300 performers playing a medley of Christmas carols. It grew from there. This year, free TubaChristmas events are scheduled in 48 states — only Delaware and Rhode Island have none on tap, according to tubachristmas.com — as well as in Canada, Australia, and Costa Rica. There are five concerts in New Jersey and 19 events planned in Pennsylvania.
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Musician Jay Krush brought the concert to Philadelphia in 1990 and has organized the event and conducted its musicians ever since. In the show’s early, pre-Internet days, Krush attracted players by sending mailers to high schools, colleges, and local musical groups. The first Philadelphia concert had 30 musicians. The event is now well known in tuba circles, even attracting players from out of state, including one of Krush’s former students who flew in from Arkansas last year.
“The tuba is an instrument the general population doesn’t know much about, and I like that TubaChristmas promotes tuba awareness,” said Krush, who performs with the Grammy Award-winning quintet Chestnut Brass Company, the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra, and is an artist in residence/lecturer at Temple University. “It’s a lot of fun, but we take it very seriously, musically … Some players have the music in advance but most of them get it when they show up [for a preconcert rehearsal] … and they do an amazing job.”
Aspiring performers must play an instrument in the tuba family (which includes the sousaphone and euphonium), register in advance, and attend a preshow rehearsal. Important note: It’s BYOB — Bring Your Own Brass (or BYOT — Bring Your Own Tuba.)
Krush expects between 80 and 100 tubaists will perform at each concert on Dec. 15. That’s the max he feels can fit and play comfortably in the Kimmel Center atrium, where listeners take chairs, or sit on the floor, or stand in nooks, or line the balconies. One year, 130 musicians took part in the Philadelphia performance. And for those surprised to hear that there are that many tuba aficionados in the area, take note: Last year, 835 musicians took part in Kansas City’s TubaChristmas event, setting a Guinness World Record for largest tuba ensemble.
“Think of all of the high schools and junior high school bands and the amateur musicians and players in community bands and university bands and professionals, and it starts adding up,” Krush said. “It brings together players from all different backgrounds and ages. You can have elementary school players and the tuba player from the Philadelphia Orchestra in the same group. They’re drawn together by their love of music.”
Wahl said he’s thrilled that tuba fans have this chance to unite.
“Tuba players, especially in high school, you’re used to feeling like the weirdo, you’re in the band in the back of the horn section, you’re awkward,” he said — and even more delighted that the event draws a mix of people from the city and the region.
“That’s something we hope all of our programs do,” said Wahl, noting that other free holiday events on tap this year include the Dec. 16 “Silent Night Sing-In” — which launched last year with more than 1,200 singers — and three “Gospel on the Plaza Events” concerts, featuring local choirs on Dec. 13, 17, and 22. “We try to bring people together through performance.”