Nudge, Nudge: Tubists have a blast in Victoria's Market Square

There are tons of tuba jokes, says tubist Eugene Dowling, who surely ranks as Victoria’s Grandaddy of the Tuba.

For instance, what’s the range of a tuba? Twenty yards if you’ve got a good arm. Or … what’s a tuba four? One and a half inches by 3 1/2 inches — unless you request a full cut.

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Of course, there are jokes about every instrument. (What are bassoons good for? Kindling an accordion fire.) That said, it seems the tuba — the noble basso backbone of the orchestra — doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves.

That all changes this week. The City of Victoria has officially declared today Tuba Christmas Day. On Saturday, the celebration of all things tuba reaches a resonating crescendo with the 35th annual Tuba Christmas concert (or “TubaXmas” as the cognoscenti call it). This free-by-donation concert — at Market Square from 1 to 3 p.m. — is a performance of Christmas carols featuring only tubas and euphoniums (the tuba’s baritone-voiced sister). It raises money for the Times Colonist Christmas Fund.

>> More Times Colonist Christmas fund stories

Actually, Saturday was supposed to be Tuba Christmas Day, being the day of the concert and all. But Dowling — the concert’s conductor, organizer and founder — said he made a “clerical error” when making his request.

“We got all discombobulated,” he said. “It’s a little bizarre, isn’t it? … At least we got a day.”

Dowling anticipates a bumper crop of tubists and euphoniumists on Saturday. Last year, there were 75 players — a record, despite the rain. Expect tunes like Adeste Fideles, O Holy Night and a sing-along Silent Night. Added bonus: There’ll be official TubaXmas tuques for sale.

Thirty-five years of tuba/euphonium concerts is a big deal. Yet Victoria’s TubaXmas is part of an even grander scheme. There are TubaXmases all over the world — 140 last time Dowling counted. The first one — hatched by tubist Harvey Phillips — was at New York’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink on Dec. 22, 1974. There are now TubaXmases in Lexington, Ky.; Akron, Ohio; and Basel, Switzerland. This season, there are three in Canada: Victoria, Vancouver (Dec. 15) and Lethbridge, Alta. (Dec. 21).

Tuba advocate Phillips was compelled to obtain references from the likes of Leonard Bernstein to convince Rockefeller Centre to let hundreds of tubists congregate on the ice rink. In a 1985 interview, he acknowledged the tuba’s slightly wacky reputation.

“People think the tuba is a silly instrument that just goes oom-pah,” the late Phillips told the New York Times. “Would Heifetz have been any less of a genius if he’d played the tuba?”

Dowling, 63, has had a distinguished career. He’s taught at the University of Victoria for 37 years, making him the music school’s most senior faculty member. Dowling played in the Victoria Symphony for a quarter of a century. He studied for four years with the Chicago Symphony’s Arnold Jacobs, considered one of the 20th century’s great tubists and teachers.

Dowling — a genial man who likes to joke about his pug dogs, Angie and Ebony — said tuba players tend to be individualists. They are people who can “handle adversity.”

He started playing as an 11-year-old in his hometown of Mason, Mich. Dowling chose the tuba by default. He was away from school, ill, when others in the school band selected their instruments.

“I was the last one to go in. The teacher said, ‘You know, you look like you could handle the tuba.’ I was scrawny. But you know, I kind of took to it.”

Like a tuba-playing Sisyphus, it wasn’t easy for Dowling (“I was really, really tiny”) to lug his massive instrument to and from school. “The school-bus driver hated me, and hated the tuba. But I stuck with it, though, dragging my stupid tuba back and forth.”

Did the other kids tease him about playing the tuba? “They didn’t really care. They just tormented me for other reasons,” Dowling said.

Victoria’s TubaXmas wouldn’t be TubaXmas without 73-year-old Dennis Latham, a retired lawyer and euphonium player. Latham will perform Saturday, despite having endured a cancer operation in September. He’s played all 34 TubaXmas concerts. “Shows what a boring life I’ve had, right?” he joked. “After a while, it becomes sort of a duty to show up.”

Dowling started this city’s TubaXmas after participating in Chicago’s TubaXmas in 1976 with a borrowed horn. Latham, who as a lawyer assisted Dowling in buying his first house, was enlisted for the inaugural Victoria concert, which attracted 25 musicians.

So what does it sound like when 60 or 70 tubas and euphoniums play together?

“It’s quite pleasant for about 20 minutes, right? Then it becomes a little repetitive. It’s an interesting sound,” Latham said.

Said Dowling: “People, when they haven’t heard it, they are …”

He paused for a second.

“They aren’t expecting much. Then when they hear it, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful.’ ”

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