Tuesday, September 28, 2021

 


 Monsters


September 2021

Late last night, while exploring the the long lost dark corners of my  computer, I found this essay I had written in circa 1995. Perhaps it might be interesting or at least entertaining today.


Are we the way we are because of the instrument we chose or did we choose our instrument because of the way we are? 


So frequently the tuba plays the role of the heavy, the villain, that we have to wonder if it’s had any effect on us after a long period of time. Or it could be that just because of our inner character, we were attracted to an instrument that could partially release the latent monster that exists in all of us?


The tuba monsters are many and how we choose to play these monster passages can have a big effect on the beast we represent. My first encounter with a tuba monster was the Peasant with a Bear in the Petrushka Ballet by Stravinsky. I’ve heard that solo played so many ways: as a lovable huggable teddy bear, a pompous quasi-elegant bear and even on a few occasions a sickly wheezy asthmatic bear. Through the 35 years of my orchestral playing I have played that solo hundreds of times and through those seasons the evolution of that bear changed into quite a different beast  then it was when I started. 


Petrushka was the first piece I played on my first concert on my first job with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in September 1956, I was 18, and as luck would have it just five minutes before the concert started part of the mechanism of my 2nd valve broke and the tuba was unplayable. An announcement was made that ‘the tubist’s valve fell off’ and it was being repaired. In fact, the stage crew fixed the valve with one drop of solder that held it together until the concert was over, at which time it promptly fell apart again. That bear that night was a very scared, tuba conscious bear! In the last years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the same bear had evolved into a very menacing, savage, salivating, wild-eyed and Godzillaesque bear! That was big fun! I played that solo several times with Stravinsky himself conducting and one morning, after playing it in a concert the night before, he came up to me during a recording session and told me that last night was the best bear he had heard; on the concert that night it was a very proud and happy bear. 


In 1967 in Ankara, Turkey, while on a world tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. From my hotel room, I heard a commotion from the street. Looking out the window, I saw a man beating a drum making as much noise as possible. On the end of a leash he had a small black bear who he was trying to make dance. Not the image I had in my mind for the Petrushka scene!


One of my symphonic regrets is that I never got the opportunity to play any of the Wagner Ring Opera material that contained the famous Fafner motif. Fafner, the dragon that guarded the Rheingold, and that Siegfried eventually slew, has become rather controversial. Although I’ve never played it, it still has passed through an evolution in my minds ear.


This brings us to a discussion of the ubiquitous BBb vs. CC tuba controversy. In symphonic music the German tradition requires all contrabass tuba parts to be played on the BBb, in most of the rest of the world these parts are usually played on the CC. The Germans claim that Wagner wrote for the BBb tuba because that is what he wanted; without question, the Germans are correct about this. But I’ve always wondered why they don’t play the BBb double slide contrabasstrombone, which is also what Wagner wrote for, instead of the F contrabass trombone that is used in Germany today. 


My favorite tuba topic is: What would the composer have used if the instruments of today were available? Again, we’re back to the conservative vs. the liberal; the traditionalist vs. the visionary; again I point out that tuba, being the youngest instrument to be accepted in the symphony orchestra family and tubists, who have made monumental progress in all aspects of their musical life, have a very definite propensity toward the liberal view: because of their short history there is very little tradition to fall back on. Of course, we really don’t know what Wagner or any other composer would have done if today’s instruments were available but we can certainly make educated guesses.


The trumpet has always been ahead of the tuba in instrumental sophistication. It’s not unusual to see a trumpet player take several instruments on stage for a symphony or brass quintet concert, or to see a soloist use several instruments. Notwithstanding travel logistics and economics, why should tubists settle for anything less? Why not use a Tenor (our piccolo trumpet!), a G, an F, an Eb, a D a CC, and a BBb just like the trumpet players, all that diverse equipment helps trumpet players to be more versatile and ultimately to sound better. 


But let’s go back to monsters and specifically Fafner; what kind of a dragon is Fafner? I’ve seen the opera once and heard the music many times and frankly, most of the time, I got the impression that Fafner was a toothless castrato dragon! Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Hollywood but in my mind’s ear I hear Fafner as a far more visceral and menacing monster than what we usually hear. What would Wagner have done with today’s sonic vocabulary? I think the result would be quite different and a lot scarier. I’m amazed that with a composer like Wagner, whose operas frequently receive high praise for their very modern and contemporary scenic design, that we tubists are required to be such strict traditionalists.


John Williams, perhaps the greatest of all the monster music composers, wrote one of the most powerful tuba passages ever in Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the scene where the extraterrestrial space ship lands on Earth. Hollywood tubist Jim Self brilliantly played this three part contrapuntal passage (all three parts overdubbed by Jim) on F tuba with octave divider. We’ve never heard power, clarity and fluency like that in the low register before, could that have had the same power and energy if it were played in the sounding octave on a BBb tuba?


Another masterpiece of monster music was the John Williams’s sound track of Jaws, the theme we hear when the shark was approaching, also played brilliantly by Tommy Johnson Johnson. That was really scary! Sadly, the Jabba the Hutt music by John Williams was not played in the Star Wars Return of the Jedi film but it’s played frequently in concert and may be the greatest piece of monster music we have.


Personally, I was saddened by the sound track for Jurassic Park; what a natural for the tuba, but sadly, that’s not the way John Williams saw it. I like to imagine what he might have written for a tyrannosaurs rex motif, even more, I like to imagine playing it. 


Elizabeth Raum had a very clear sonic picture of the tuba’s potential monster characterization when she wrote A little Monster Music for STUBA, the now defunct Swiss tuba ensemble from Lausanne, Switzerland. Her monsters in this wonderful suite: Nessie, The Hydra, Fafner and St. George and the Dragon, are four distinctly different beasts.   


I had the occasion once to ask Henry Mancinni why he wrote that cute little tune for Eb clarinet and piccolo for the sound track of Elephant Walk, “What else are you going to write for elephants?” was his answer. I couldn’t think of a response!


Even music for the tuba that is not purposely written as the sonic personification of something monster like often takes on an ominous character. My personal name for such passages, whether they are fragments or extended, is “Doomsday Licks”.  


And yet again we return to the same question: Were we born to play doomsday licks or does playing doomsday licks for an extended period of time effect us? If so, how?!


Discovered September 28, 2021 Oaxaca, Mexico


Friday, August 27, 2021

 Balance


It was 1952, the New York Philharmonic was in Los Angeles for concerts and I was solo driving my fathers 1952 Chevrolet to the Wilshire Hilton Hotel to take my first lesson with my hero William Bell. I remember that lesson, he taught me take short sniffs through my nose so I could play through a long passage of fast notes without distorting the rhythm when I took a breath; it worked. He also suggested that I puff my cheeks a little to avoid the corners of my lips creating a “smile” embouchure; it also worked.  


After the lesson Mr. Bell invited me to go with him to the concert so I could listen from back stage. I was aware what an enormous privilege this was and I was very excited. Programed on the concert that afternoon was Brahms 1st Symphony, the trombone section, Gordon Pulis, Louis Van Haney and Allen Ostrander, had found the quietest place they could find backstage to rehearse the famous trombone choral in the fourth movement. I had never heard anything so beautiful in my life, the intonation was perfect, it was perfectly together, and the balance was perfect, it was beautiful and it left a life long impression on me; that happened 69 years ago.


As with so many retired symphony musicians, since I took my sabbatical in 1989 I had almost stopped listening to any symphonic music. I don’t know the reason for this, but at the same time COVID hit and forced me to cancel an extended USA and Europe tour, I found myself listening to music, particularly symphonic music ….. and particularly Mahler symphonies.


After searching and listening I finally discovered a list of all the Mahler symphonies performed by the Lucern Festival Orchestra with Claudio Abbado conducting. I was amazed by the superb level of playing throughout the whole orchestra particularly symphonies 2, 3, 7, and 9. The strings were great and the basses were the best I had ever heard. The woodwinds were perfection and the brass were awesome as were the percussion.


I’m struck by many great orchestras today where a potentially great section has one player that plays louder than the others or one player plays softer than the others. The Lucern Festival Orchestra seemed to me to be perfect in balance whether in ff or pp. 

I spent a great deal of time going through the online performance and specifying specific passages in the brass that serve as wonderful examples of perfectly balanced section playing. However, it seems much more respectful to just recommend, to my readers, to listen to to that recording of Mahler 3rd Symphony played by Claudio Abbato and the Lucern Festival Orchestra and enjoy the abundant excellence. 


However, I can’t refrain from mentioning the beautiful choral which starts at the coda 1 hour 30 minutes in to the recording; it starts pp with four trumpets and one trombone and crescendos to mf with four trumpets and four trombones all with a felt cover on their bells; it’s absolutely as magical to this old symphonic veteran as that New York Philharmonic trombone section was back stage in Los Angeles to that 15 year old, 69 years ago.


Roger Bobo August 27, 2021, Oaxaca, Mexico

Thursday, April 29, 2021


Tubas in G and D

In 1955, while returning home from 8 weeks in Interlochen, the National Music camp in Michigan, I had made arrangements to stop in Chicago and meet Arnold Jacobs. I had an eight hour layover between the train from Travis City to Chicago and the train from Chicago to Los Angeles; even 66 years ago Arnold Jacobs held the reputation of being the center of knowledge and wisdom of all things regarding tuba. I was absolutely not disappointed. 

He invited me into his house where he immediately guided me into his basement, where he kept all his tubas and a formidable array of medical equipment with which he could measure every aspect of the human body in regard to playing the tuba.

He would talk and every word he said was something incredibly meaningful to my young and hungry mind. He would invite me to play and begin his amazing fountain of knowledge again. Finally, I asked what was that small silver tuba in the corner. He told me that that was a tuba in F; he had it because the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, Fritz Rainer, sometimes wanted him to play a smaller tuba. He picked it up and handed it to me and said,"Play it". I think he told me it was an Alexander tuba. I was involved only that it was silver, shiny and to my mind something exotic and unknown.. It felt like I was test driving a Lamborghini, it would do everything I wanted it to do.

Six years later, as a member of the Rochester Philharmonic I had an F tuba of my own. In a performance of Bruckner 7th symphony I used it on the first and 3rd movements and I understood the difference between a Contrabasstuba and a basstuba; Bruckner understood very well what he was doing when  he specified basstuba in the 1st and 3rd movements and, contrabasstuba in the 2nd and 4th movements. 

As the years passed I had the extraordinary opportunity to experiment in Rochester, Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Florence and I learned how the general ambiance of a symphony orchestra was effected greatly by the equipment the tubist used. I also learned that with the influence of the trombones and the brass at large, plus, of course, the conductor, the decision which instrument worked best was largely the decision of the tubist.

In the 1950s, there was a rumor that the Lockie Music Exchange, the exclusive importer of Miraphone instruments, was in possession of a G tuba; How could this be, where did this rumor come from?

Miraphone -- called Mirafone then -- after the war was a Czech company among companies like Cherveny and Fuchs. In the early 50s Mirafone made the move with many of its workers to Waldkraiberg, Germany where it remained a Czech community for several years, working mostly for the military market.

German and Czech military bands in the post WW2 period built the instruments very high in pitch for brilliance, meaning a tuba in F was really in F#. It's my belief that this G tuba was an F# tuba originally made as a small military band instrument, it probably stayed in storage at the Lockie Music Exchange in Los Angeles for years. Having heard this rumor for several years and imagining the uses that a G tuba could have, I asked Lockie Music Exchange if I could possibly get a G tuba; it was given to me after two days!.

I never used it as a solo instrument although the potential as a solo instrument was great. I did use in   certain works by Berlioz, such as, Romeo and Juliet Overture and Benvenuto Cellini Overture and where the instrument shined most was Prelude to the 3rd act of Lohengrin by Wagner. (The first entrance where the theme is in the high octave).

The ophicleide parts of Berlioz on F tuba are sometimes to massive to blend with the trombones in those Berlioz unisons, when the F tuba is played at the volume to reach the exciting sound suitable for those unison passages, it becomes too dominant to blend with the trombones. With the G tuba I could play at a high volume and still be a part of the trombones.

There is a movement presently to actually use ophicleides on these passages which work wonderfully when the whole orchestra is using period instruments but ophicleides have a difficult time holding up with the sound of a modern symphony brass section.

Many symphony tubists prefer to choose one or two tubas and play beautifully for their whole career with those same instruments. Personally, my tendency to changing instruments was inspired by observing how trumpet players change instruments in dealing with diverse repertoires. Of course, trumpetists change when their repertoire appears as trumpet in A, Bb, C, D Eb, F, G and sometimes more, but the most interesting observation has been when because they believe a passage or a whole symphony sounds best on a specific instrument. That is the modal I used in selecting an appropriate instrument. two things: It makes the music sound as good as possible and it makes the job extraordinary more interesting. 

This brings my blog to a short discussion of why I needed a D tuba! Quite simply, I was just curious. I had an extremely fine Meraphone 184 (small C tuba) and with a small Besson Eb bell, great as it was I rarely used it and I imagined what it might be like if it were cut down to be a D tuba. Upon completion it turned out to be one of the best tubas I ever played; carefully, I began using it in the orchestra, I started with Brahms 2nd in D major, Dvorak 8th and 9th. It fit beautifully.

Both instruments are with old students now; the G in Japan and the D in the USA. I think both instruments might be for sale if anyone might be interested. Something wonderful for the curious minded tubist. Granted, the market for a fine G and a fine D tuba is small but I can tell you they are both superb and special instruments.

Curiosity: The more we explore, the more we learn, the more we learn the better wen sound.

Roger Bobo, April 30, 2021, Oaxaca, Mexico

Thursday, March 25, 2021

 


Specters Reunion

It seems my most successful essays for TubaNews are the ones that have dealt more with specific aspects of our instrumental function rather than broader thoughts regarding the world of music. I hope I can write about both.

For issue 3 of TubaNews (A Tuba Magazine of 20 years ago) I wrote the essay, "Specters", about some of the interesting people, those who would follow the various orchestras that I had played in through the years in our rehearsals and concerts.

Sadly, the stories of an old man who played in the Moscow Youth Orchestra when Tchaikovsky would bring by a new score by to hear the orchestration or another old man in another part of the world had a big part of his life rewriting symphony scores with all the inaudible orchestration deleted, do not hold the same interest as rotary vs. piston valves or "Is Bigger Better?" To me that's sad.

In any case, I saw these specters again a few days ago.

My daughter Melody was visiting for the last two weeks and as a finale for the visit I arranged that we would spend three days in Kyoto at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Ryokans are famous for being havens of rest and tranquility and this one in Kyoto was no exception; entering one could feel ones pulse slowing, a wonderful nights sleep was guaranteed. That first night in the ryokan was one of the best nights sleep I've had in a long time.

Suddenly the fragrance of eucalyptus filled the air and the sunlight was fragmented as it shined through the high branches of the many trees. The old dirt road that was the driveway was just as it always had been. I was surprised not to be surprised being there, it seemed perfectly natural, nor was I surprised to be standing with the specters that I had been seeing at orchestra rehearsals and concerts for the last 48 years.

The two old men were there, the one from the Moscow Youth Orchestra and the deleter of orchestration; they stood next to each other looking similar and yet very different. The beautiful young girl dressed in white holding the red rose stood a little apart from the old men and the elegant old woman dressed in high fashion of Europe in the 1920s stood far apart from the other three at the end of the driveway where it met the road. She was just as always, standing very properly and smiling at the strange group of people standing on the driveway. I had no idea who this old woman was but she had the look of how I imagined Clara Schumann or Alma Mahler might appear. She was truly a specter.

"It's amazing to see you here," addressing the two old men first. "I only got to talk to you once and shortly after that you both disappeared. I wanted to talk again to both of you but never got the chance. I knew you in Rochester and I knew you in Los Angeles, do you know each other?"

The man from the Moscow Youth Orchestra answered first. "We know each other now."

"I remember so well your story about Tchaikovsky conducting his 5th Symphony to hear the orchestration; I wanted to hear more stories but never had the chance. Did other famous composers conduct your orchestra?"

"Oh yes, Rimsky-Korsakov used to come, sometimes we would play some of his works but many times he would come and play some of the works of Mussorgsky, he was always editing and reorchestrating Mussorgsky's works, the last time he came we played Night on Bald Mountain.

Talking to both men, I said, "It's really strange that one of you had such personal experience with the orchestrations of some of the worlds great composers and the other spent a big part of your life deleting orchestration and rewriting scores of great composers without the inaudible orchestration. What ever became of that project?"

He answered, "I put all the work in the attic of my sisters house in Rochester, I took the last stack of work there just a few weeks before I left your world."

"Do you know where the work is now?" I asked.

"It was a long time ago, all I can tell you is that it was the green house on Kansas St. in Rochester."

"How many people knew about the work you were doing?"

"I don't think anybody, my sister knew I was doing something with music but she never understood what it was."

The other man interupted, "when I was a young man in Moscow my big fascination was the orchestration so I think you can understand how very strange it sounds to me that someone would spend a large part of their life simplifying the orchestration of the worlds masterworks. What started you on such an odd project?"

The deleter answered, "I was never a good musician, I played piano as a boy but I have been a concert goer all my life, after hearing many of the great works many times it seemed just a natural thing to ask about the necessity of all this inaudible orchestration. I'm not even sure I believe in it but it was a study that I dedicated my life to."

"As a study I can see a little interest but I believe I can predict almost exactly what my conclusion would be if it were possible to hear your modified scores. When you see someone sleeping how do you know whether he is sleeping or dead?

"You can see and hear them breathing"

"Yes, and that's what orchestration is, it's the life of the music, the breath of the music."

After a short pause, I thought to myself, "I would like to find that green house on Kansas St. in Rochester and spend a day listening to those scores, we would learn a lot."

As the two men continued their conversation on orchestration I turned my attention to the girl in white holding the red rose. "I know you, we knew each other in Los Angeles; I suddenly remember your name, your name is Phyllis, you worked in the administration of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I remember that you were sweet and you were wise."

"I'm not really Phyllis, I only look like Phyllis, you chose that I would look like her."

"But who are you then?"

"You know me, you have seen me many times but I've looked very different every time I came to visit you."

"But who are you?"

"I'm really a teacher, you could call me a guide and you should just think of me as a friend"

"Have you come to teach me?"

"Not this time, this is just a visit to say hello and to talk."

"Somehow you make me feel special, but why have you come here and where are you when you are not here."

She was laughing and clearly enjoying this conversation. "Ha-ha, I have many people I like to visit, they are all different and all interesting. Some are curious like you and some are very frightened, but they all can learn."

"What is it that you teach?"

Still amused, "I never know what I will teach or even if I will teach, a better question would be what do you want to learn."

"There are only two questions I have right now. Who are the old man and woman who live in that house down these stairs. It seems I've known them for a long time and what is that strange language they speak, I've never understood it and I couldn't learn it"

"They were just caretakers, they were the caretakers of that house and they were your caretakers. Many times, but not always, the caretakers speak a strange language and when that's the case those who they are caring for develop extraordinary skills at communication."

"Can you tell me who the old woman is who is standing at the end of the driveway, I've seen her so many times all over the world, always listening and moving with symphony music. Who is she?"

"She is always around symphonic music but most of the time you can't see her, you are very lucky. We're going to go now, enjoy the rest of your vacation. Goodbye."

Before I could say goodbye the eucalyptus aroma blended into the wonderful smell of steam and cedar from the tub in the ryokan and the first sight was the small Japanese garden just out the sliding door. It was a wonderful nights sleep, Kyoto and ryokans are very special.

Kyoto, Japan, January 19, 2006