When a tuba player takes the spotlight

Thursday June 21, 2012

LENOX -- From the back of the orchestra, its bell glints over the heads of other players as if to say, remember me?

Easily satirized and its virtuosic capabilities often overlooked, the tuba is much more than an ungainly, oompa-producing twist of brass -- al though, as the Boston Sym phony Orchestra's principal tubist, Mike Roylance, is quick to attest, it does do a great job with the oompas.

Roylance, who joined the BSO in 2003 after an unorthodox music career that included 13 years in the Walt Disney World Orchestra, did not intend to make a life out of tuba, let alone in a symphony. But the 44-year-old musician is now devoted to the most modern instrument in the orchestra, introduced in the mid-19th century, with a low, mellow voice that helps to blend the symphonic strings and brass.

"In many ways it's the car that has the GPS and airbags and seat belts, whereas the violin players are driving around in Model Ts," Roylance said. "It's a very capable instrument: It's capable of playing extremely soft, as soft as any cello, but it can also play at a volume that can balance the entire brass section with just one instrument."

Stationed in the Berkshires all summer with the BSO, Roy lance is also a teacher with Boston University's Tangle wood Institute and this week and next is leading the tuba/ euphonium workshop for the country's youngest low-brass aspirants. At 6 this Saturday evening, at Trinity Church in Lenox, he'll play a solo recital open to the public.

The last instrument added to what is still today considered the standard orchestral complement, the tuba came about after the invention of the piston valve in 1824, according to David Wampler, a low-brass teacher at the Berkshire Music School, Bard College at Simon's Rock and the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Its predecessors include the euphonium, considered a "tenor tuba," and the even more obscure serpent, a snakishly curved wooden instrument with finger holes and a cupped mouthpiece.

Because the tuba is a "latecomer" to the symphony world, Wampler explained, a lot of common orchestral repertoire includes no parts for the lowest of the low brass. Bach, Beet hoven and Mozart all wrote before "tuba" was a word.

"Tuba players, in order to get a background of playing Bar oque and Renaissance, learn music that was written for flute," Wampler said. "I tell these guys as freshmen, ‘You've got to learn how to read treble clef.' "

Starting in the mid-1800s, composers like Berlioz, Pro kofiev and Mahler began to arrange for the instrument that has a 4 1 2 octave range. Now adays, living composers like John Williams, Roland Szent pali, Aron Romhanyi and Bar bara York champion the tuba, and new works are commissioned all the time.

Still, many listeners are shocked to learn that tubists can be virtuosos.

Roylance recalled a solo performance in Lenox when he played Mahler's "Songs of the Wayfarer," originally written for tenor voice, and was afterward approached by audience members pleasantly floored by what the hefty instrument could do.

"It's very frustrating for the normal public to think of the tuba as the back-row person who shows up late, who doesn't dress well, who doesn't play anything but the oompa parts -- which it's very capable of doing," Roylance said.

Still, it's a problem Roylance is glad to have. The instrument chose him, he said, when in sixth grade the more popular trumpet, drums and saxophone were already taken when he arrived late to band practice. After getting serious about tuba his senior year of high school, Roylance flitted between music and law -- his parents' profession -- until he landed a permanent gig playing among 26 tubas at Disney World in Orlando. Laid off after more than a dozen years at Epcot, he found that steady tuba jobs weren't exactly in abundance and nearly became an airline pilot before landing a seat as the only tubist for the BSO.

Nowadays, he compares his career in the back of the orchestra to the life of flying commercial airlines he almost lived.

"Ninety percent of the time it's a walk in the park," he said, "and then 10 percent of the time it's complete terror."

Roylance is currently preparing his chops for such moments of terror as the Bydlo movement of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," a famous, lyrical solo he'll perform with the BSO on Friday, July 27 in the Shed.

Even when he's out of the limelight, his whole notes and other less noticeable riffs shape the sound of the orchestra.

"In the BSO there are eight or nine basses, and that's an amazing sound," Roylance said, "and I have to come up with that soundscape with just me. So even if I'm playing whole notes, it's still a very crucial role I'm the only one, so every note is a solo."

What: Opportunities to see Boston Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Mike Roylance in the Berkshires

When: Solo tuba recital, 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: Trinity Church, 88 Walker St., Lenox

When: BSO Brass Quintet, 7 p.m. Monday, July 9, with the orchestra's brass principals

Where: Trinity Church


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