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Tubas trumpet in Christmas

Austin found a new way to enjoy the sound of the season Saturday afternoon.

Conductor Jane Orvik welcomed a crowd that swelled to more than 150 to listen to and participate in a "Merry Tuba Christmas" program. The performance began at 1 p.m. in Oak Park Mall’s Center Court after less than three hours of practice in the mall’s community room. Orvik led 15 musicians playing nine full size tubas and six smaller, and "higher-voiced," euphoniums in the performance of 13 Christmas carols.

On the second verse of each carol, she would turn around and direct the audience in their singing of the second verse. They responded readily, with spirited singing of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Deck the Halls" and even "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen."

That didn’t work for the French carol, "Pat-A-Pan" but the group made up for their silence with "Jingle Bells" and "Joy to the World."

Kodey Weis, of Pine Island, said that his band teacher had encouraged him to come down to Austin for the event, which welcomes musicians of all ages to join in the fun. "The only real challenge was getting here through the snow," he said.


Bill McClary, of Austin, came to see the show as much out of curiosity as anything else. "I just couldn’t imagine an all-tuba band," he said. "I didn’t want to miss it."

With some youngsters sitting on the floor, the audience filled the available chairs or stood for the show from the main doors into the mall almost up to the band. They lined the walls on either side and filled seats in back of the performers around the center court.

And the business of the mall went on, with people moving from store to store, their spirits hopefully boosted by the tubas and the singing.

Dennis Conroy of Hayfield, a veteran of Tuba Christmases past, and his daughter, Vana, played bass tubas in the band.

He gave the audience a quick course in Tuba Christmas history. He traced the Tuba Christmas phenomenon, which today boasts more that 250 such events in the United States and overseas, to the efforts of Harvey G. Phillips. That performance took place Dec. 22, 1974, on the ice rink of New York City’s Rockefeller Center.

Phillips wanted to make sure that William J. Bell, who was born on Christmas Day in 1902 and became the best known tuba player in the nation, would not be forgotten.

Conroy also recognized composer Alec Wilder who provided the arrangements for Christmas carols for tubas. Wilder died on Christmas Eve 1980.

The Harvey Phillips Foundation promotes the music arts. Phillips himself died in October of this year.


Will there be a Merry Tuba Christmas performance in Austin next year? Tuba player Bev Vangsness, who came from LeRoy to play, thinks so.

"I think it went great," she said.

Keith Eilertson, of Austin, who plays the tuba but just came to listen this year, said that he would play next year. "And I was standing next to a woman who plays a baritone and her husband plays the tuba," he said.

Promoters said to mark Dec. 3 on next year's calendar for the second annual concert.

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