Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | December 20, 2008

The Unbearable Lowness of Brass

This was a day of Philadelphia holiday adventuring by Darling Spouse, the NinjaBaker and your humble Dinosaur narrator. The three of us went a-traipsing into Center City Philadelphia this morning, where our initial stated goal was to attend a free event at the Kimmel Center known (for real) as Tuba Christmas, but was then followed by several other season- and city-specific activities

We have a warm spot in our hearts for low brass; Darling Spouse because DenverDaughter played bari horn in her younger days, NinjaBaker ever since he branched out from trumpet onto horn, mellophone and trombone, and I because I love the way the sound pounds its way in through my chest instead of just making its way through my ears like ordinary music. We were not to be disappointed. We got there a good half hour before show time, but the rows of chairs set up for the audience were already so full that we ended up sitting behind a free-standing staircase in the general vicinity of what was functionally “stage left.” Listeners eventually filled the atrium area of the Kimmel and lined all the balconies as well.

There were so many performers that some of
them had to go upstairs to the balcony,
a few of whom are visible in this picture.

Obviously our location was irrelevant to the sounds we experienced, but we had a cool view of the conductor:

This year’s Philadelphia version of Tuba Christmas featured 132 participants, ranging in age from a 6th grader to a Civil War veteran (ok; a costumed re-enacter, but the instrument he played was a functioning period antique.) There were all varieties of all members of the tuba family, and when they let loose, let’s just say this wasn’t John Philip Sousa’s oom pah pah band. Here’s a picture NB snapped of the two oldest instruments in the group, the 1860 Civil War era baritone saxhorn and an old fashioned upright Sousaphone*, aka “raincatcher” from 1889:

Darling Spouse noted that one doesn’t usually think of this family of instruments as particularly melodic, so this event is their opportunity to show that they can, indeed carry a tune. For about an hour, they proceeded to carry over a dozen Christmas tunes that defied superlatives. Some were paced a bit slower than might have been expected, because as NinjaBaker pointed out, (tongue only partly in cheek) tubas don’t do eighth notes. Audience participation included the jangling of keys during Jingle Bells, as well as song sheets handed around to allow us to sing along with two other carols.

In the spirit of inclusiveness, there was also mention of Tuba Hannukah and Tuba Kwanzaa. To honor the latter, an arrangement of Go Tell it on the Mountain was included. The Jewish contribution, of course, was tubas belting out the old familiar strains of the Dreidl Song. The real problem, of course, is that as soon as they started to play, the following quatrain jumped into my head fully formed :

I have a little tuba,
I made it out of brass,
And when it gets too heavy,
It knocks me on my…
Oh tuba, tuba, tuba…

(Digital Cuttlefish, eat your heart out.)

‘Twas a truly amazing experience, and one that I look forward to repeating again in years to come. After it was over (and once the NinjaBaker was through gawking at the sight of a group of sousaphones getting onto an elevator, contemplating the amazing experience of listening to them play in that confined space) we turned our footsies to the north and mosied up Broad Street. The weather was cold but not yet biting, and it warmed me to realize we were at the very site of rather a happy event just a few months back. We turned right onto Market street and one block later found ourselves at Macy’s.

Who the hell cares about Macy’s in Philadelphia at Christmas? you may ask. And well you might. I may have mentioned one or two (hundred) times that I didn’t actually grow up in Philadelphia (which is to say, the Philadelphia metropolitan area) but I have been here since 1981. What that means is that even I know that a now-defunct store called Wanamakers used to have this really cool pipe organ at its flagship store downtown, and a reportedly spectacular light show at Christmas time. What has happened in the fullness of time is that Wannies is now Macy’s, but they still have the organ and the Christmas light show, which was our next destination:

Darling Spouse admitted to some disappointment in the experience, probably the result of over-hyped expectations. I did point out to NB how much more impressive the concept was if one considered what was involved in essentially the same production before the invention of the computer. My sense is that the event would probably have been more fun in the company of those aged in single digits. However it was something to check off the bucket list.

At that point, we were ready for a meal. Another three blocks north and one block east and we were at our favorite mecca of Philadelphia food, the Reading Terminal Market. Darling Spouse went for a hot pastrami sandwich while I got a few hand rolls of sushi, but not until after I followed NinjaBaker around the entire place mopping up his drool as he checked out every single stand. He finally settled on chicken parmigiana. Of course the process was then repeated for dessert.

Finally, tired but unbowed, we retired to the car park where we ransomed Old Redder for a mere $9.00 and made our way home. What a day. As NinjaBaker put it, “Oh, the Tubanity!”

*Do click on the link for some chuckles. It includes lines such as:

Few things are more continually irritating to a genuine sousaphone man than to have his instrument constantly called a “tuba”. A tuba is a weak, puny thing fit only for mewling, puking babes and Guy Lombardo — the better to harass balding, middle-aged dancers. An upright instrument of startling ugliness and mooing, flatulent tone, the tuba has none of the grandeur, the scope or sweep of its massive, gentle, distant relation.


[The sousaphone] is an instrument a man can literally get his teeth into, and often does. A sudden collision with another bell has, in many instances, produced interesting dental malformations which have provided oral surgeons with some of their happier moments.

Also, there are already plenty of Tuba Christmas clips up on YouTube from various locales this year. Check them out to get more of a sense of the whole thing, and/or consider checking out your local performance. It really is great fun.


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