Welcoming Christmas, tuba style

Published 9:09 pm Friday, December 4, 2015

By Mark Schmerling


Local residents and visitors can enjoy an unusual, but rousing and inclusive, rendition of traditional Christmas music this Saturday afternoon, when Merry Tuba Christmas celebrates the holiday at Polk County High School’s auditorium. Admission for the 1:30 p.m. event is free.

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Created by Harvey Phillips in 1974 as a tribute to his mentor/teacher, the great tubist William J. Bell, Merry Tuba Christmas will be celebrated in 311 locations across the country this holiday season, according to local tubist Manfred Walter. The first Tuba Christmas was celebrated at New York City’s Rockefeller Center’s ice skating rink in 1974.

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In 1921, Bell joined the band of John Phillip Sousa. From 1924 through 1937, he was principal tuba with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He later became principal tubist with the New York Philharmonic.


With so many venues in a short time frame, some musicians perform at multiple (as many as five or six) Tuba Christmas locations, learning of specific locations and dates via tubachristmas.com, set up for performers, said Walter. Walter said musicians also learn by word or mouth and some advertising.


In all, he said, some 55 musicians, including six Polk County High School students and two Polk County Middle School students, will play at Polk County High School today. Walter will be one of those playing at the celebration. Also playing will be a soloist from Western Carolina University. Musicians from Limestone College in Gaffney will perform an octet piece.


Like every other Tuba Christmas performance, today’s at PCHS will feature tuba, euphonium (an instrument similar to a tuba, but smaller, with a higher pitch), sousaphone and baritone renditions of traditional Christmas carols.


“The basic music is the same across the country,” Walter noted.


Walter explained that this concert will be the 18th such performance at PCHS. The tradition started when Stanley Howell had first planned to play in front of the Polk County Courthouse in Columbus, but rainy conditions led to their performing in the Stearns Building across Mills Street. Subsequent performances took place in the high school.


Manfred Walter mentioned that he had many years earlier played the baritone euphonium. While singing in the local Community Chorus, Dr. Howell, standing near him, invited him to play at Tuba Christmas. Of course, Walter accepted that invitation.


Walter noted that Tuba Christmas performances contain a mix of musicians, ranging from once-a-year players to seasoned professionals.


Regardless of performer experience, Walter assures that “it will come together.”


“The community enjoys the concert. We have a full house at the high school where the auditorium seats 600. I do enjoy it,” Walter added.


In addition to promoting the event, Walter has a longer-term vision. “My goal is to attract young people,” he said. He noted that the eight Polk County students who perform today “will never forget that experience.”


He said that exposure to a given instrument “makes the younger players realize what a given instrument sounds like,” and can inspire them to want to sound like that.


Walter, who also plays in the Hendersonville Concert Band, admits, “It’s very challenging for someone who hasn’t played in so many years to keep up.”


The soloist for “O Holy Night” will be Alexander Canup from Western Carolina University. Accompanying him will be John Gardner of Tryon. Gardner has been active in the musical life of Polk County since 2009 as a pianist, organist, and choral singer.


Music is under the direction of Jamie Hafner, from Brevard.


While audience members attend at no cost, musicians must pay a modest $7 to perform. The national office receives $5 of this. Walter hopes that fundraising and contributions eliminate the need for this charge.


“That’s a goal of mine,” Walter said of raising sufficient funds to eliminate charging musicians.


For most concert selections, the audience is encouraged to sing along. A screen will display the lyrics, so people get the words correct, Walter said. “It’s traditional Christmas music. The last piece we play,” said Walter, “is the Hallelujah Chorus.”


Though Walter admits that the sound is not what many people are accustomed to, “it sounds good.”