Have yourself a merry little ... TubaChristmas? St. Louis' low brass musicians play in the holidays
Low brass musicians from across the St. Louis region and beyond packed into the Anheuser-Busch Biergarten early Saturday morning.
The nearly 150 low brass musicians' goal? Spreading holiday cheer and appreciation through a unique concert featuring a mix of specially arranged classic and contemporary music.
TubaChristmas is an annual concert that celebrates those who play, teach, and compose music for instruments in the tuba family — including the sousaphone, a marching band version of the tuba, as well as euphoniums and baritones, low brass instruments that look like small tubas.
Harvey Phillips, a Marionville, Missouri, native and longtime tuba and euphonium professor at Indiana University, held the first TubaChristmas concert in 1974 as a tribute to his own teacher and mentor, William J. Bell.
While that first concert was held at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink, subsequent concerts over the years have popped up across the United States, Australia, Canada and Costa Rica. This year marks the national organization’s 50th year of performing tuba-centric holiday tunes.
"It has developed enough notoriety that it gives younger students a place to go,” said Bill Reynolds, an adjunct music professor at Kaskaskia and Rend Lake Colleges and a longtime participant. “It gives some importance to a low brass player … and it gives the younger players a chance to hear some good players and gives them something to shoot for.”
The 79-year-old from Bluford, Illinois, has embraced the TubaChristmas camaraderie for about four decades — even through a hiatus while working in the circus as a musician and later a ringmaster.
Reynolds nods to his eclectic background while donned with a top hat, black wool coat affixed with pins from TubaChristmases past and a rare 1870s helicon — another less-well-known member of the tuba family.
TubaChristmas provides an opportunity to put low brass instruments on center stage that are normally not in standard wind band repertoire, Reynolds explained. "We're kind of designated to the back row in most bands,” he said and chuckled. “It's just a lot of fun to get together and play something where I get the melody all the time.”
While one may expect a cacophony of questionable sounds when you put so many tubas in a room, many of which have never performed with one another, the St. Louis group filled the halls of the Soulard brewery with delightful and mellow melodies — all of them adorned with TubaChristmas buttons featuring Phillips, “Mr. Tuba” himself.
Jeremy Knudtson, the high school band director at Eureka High School, has led the St. Louis chapter of the group for a decade. He said he first learned about TubaChristmas while in college at the University of Central Missouri and has been involved, now alongside his family, ever since.
"This has become a tradition for so many people in so many families," he said while noting his three sons were playing in the ensemble. "I'm so excited to be here, seeing the camaraderie of these people that only see each other once or twice a year coming together and just picking up where they left off."
The camaraderie and community among fellow tuba and euphonium players is something Michael Bennett, 53, has seen over the 46 TubaChristmas concerts he’s attended throughout his life, 16 of those being in St. Louis. The steel mill financial analyst made the 3½-hour trek to St. Louis from Gosnell, Arkansas, this year to perform alongside Lisa, his 25-year-old daughter.
"It just doesn't feel like Christmas without this,” he said of the event. “This is a chance for tuba players to just leave out the squeaky clarinets and the bad-sounding French Horns and let the trumpets go do their thing somewhere else. This is where the two of us get to sit together and make fun of everyone else and play some beautiful music together.”
Bennett recalls his daughter being placed on trumpet in sixth grade and was crushed that she couldn’t follow in his footsteps, but later was able to persuade her band director to make a change. They celebrated by performing in the circa 2010 edition of TubaChristmas at the St. Louis Galleria.
“Sitting there with my daughter playing our horns together, that's just got to be one of the most proud memories I've got where this little 12-year-old girl wanted to be just like her dad,” he said during a break in the band’s day-of rehearsal.
Knudtson called the band back shortly after to rehearse the world premiere of his arrangement of “Here Comes the King” — Budweiser’s iconic jingle — created to celebrate the concert at the brewery. In the end, the director said the audience’s reaction to the music is one of the things he looks forward to the most each year.
“It literally brings tears to my eyes because it is just a wonderful, wonderful moment,” he said. “It's a way to spread goodwill and love and just keep the magic of this joyous season alive year [after] year."
See photos from the event below by interim digital editor and staff photojournalist Brian Munoz.