Tuba song

Hunter moves from the back of the hall to the spotlight
By EMILY PARKHURST  |  February 17, 2010

SINGING ITS PRAISES: Dan Hunter and his tuba.

Dan Hunter wants you to know that a tuba is more than an oom-pah-pah machine or the big, shiny bell in the back of the orchestra. To Hunter, the tuba is a storyteller, an opera singer, and a melodic instrument.

"The tuba's not promoted well. I do master classes to show kids the tuba's not boring, but then they go to band and play whole notes," he says.

Hunter, who is on the faculty at the USM School of Music and is a common sight in the back of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, will be proving his point on February 26, when he performs a packed program of pure tuba music — no transcriptions.

The first half of the program will be pieces by living composers, including Sonata for Tuba and Piano by Emmy-award winning film and television composer Bruce Broughton, Three Miniatures for Tuba by Anthony Plog, and the second movement from the Concerto for Tuba by James Barnes.

"It's hard to find tuba music that doesn't sound like tuba music," says Hunter.

He explains that many composers don't know how to handle writing for the instrument, writing pieces that are so difficult to play that only the highest-level performers can handle them, or writing music too campy to be taken seriously.

The first piece on the program was written by Broughton for his friend Tommy Johnson, who is best known for performing the one of the most famous film-music solos of all time: the Jaws theme. Hunter explains that the piece has a great deal of Hollywood influence.

"When you listen to it, you hear movie tunes, you hear the influence of movies. It's mostly story-telling."

Hunter discovered the Broughton while preparing for a solo competition. He says, at the time, he wasn't ready to handle the technical challenges of the piece. "It's more nimble than you generally hear from a tuba."

While Hunter did have some choices to make when putting together his program, he did not have nearly the repertoire to choose from as a more common instrument such as the violin or flute. One of the reasons there are so few works composed for solo tuba is that no two tubas are the same. While a flute or violin can differ dramatically depending on the manufacturer or the materials used to create the instrument, tubas come in a wide variety of sizes with different valves, bell sizes, and body structures. This affects the tone, color, and even the amount of air required from the musician to create a sound.

"You have to keep in mind the phrasing. The phrasing has to be more easily manipulated," he says.

The third work on the program, by Plog, is similar to the Broughton in that it was written with a particular tuba player in mind.

"He plays with a tuba he designed," says Hunter. "You can tell when you hear his recording that he helped to mold the piece. When you listen to different players, the piece sounds different."

Hunter says that despite some of the more traditional works, such as the Paul Hindemith Sonata for Tuba and Piano or the modern Concerto in One Movement by Russian composer Alexei Lebedev that make up the second half of the program, the one movement of the Barnes that he will play in the first half is his personal favorite.

"Its strictly a song. I get a chance to just sing," he says. "It's just much more introspective."

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at emily.parkhurst@yahoo.com.

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