A pre-pandemic Salem Tuba Holiday rehearsal (Courtesy/Salem Symphonic Winds)
The biggest gathering of tuba, euphonium and baritone players in town will return to the Elsinore Theatre on Friday for Salem’s Tuba Holiday concert. The annual performance of seasonal tunes is back on this year after the pandemic forced a hiatus in 2020.
“Playing tuba is kind of an affliction you can't get rid of,” said Phil Rundquist, a tuba player and retired band director who’s been participating in Salem’s Tuba Holiday concert since its inception. “It’s fun getting together with other people who have the same affliction. Making music together as a large ensemble is kind of a rarity for this instrument.”
In the recent past, the number of participating musicians would range between 75 and 100. This year, because of Covid, organizers expect around 35 or 40.
“It’s a lot like listening to a really amazing cathedral organ. It's a really rich, deep, wonderful sound,” Rundquist said.
The set list includes longtime favorites like “Jingle Bells,” “Ave Maria” and “Joy to the World.” Audience members will be encouraged to sing along, led by the concert’s featured vocalist Jeff Witt.
The show will also include a new arrangement of “Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella” from former longtime director of the Salem Pops Orchestra, Larry Harrington. Other arrangers whose works will be featured in the Dec. 24 concert include Ted Cory, Hinrich Muller, Andy Schanz, Valgene Phillips and current Salem Symphonic Winds Director John Skelton.
Salem’s Tuba Holiday tradition stretches decades into the past.
Originally, the event was associated with Tuba Christmas, a nationwide franchise that’s presented festive winter tuba concerts in cities around the country since 1974.
It was founded by Harvey Phillips, a renowned American tuba player who sought to demonstrate that tuba is “a legitimate instrument, and not just an ‘oompa,’” said local concert organizer Toni Skelton.
Salem’s first performance was held in 1989. Since then, the concert has had multiple homes. According to Skelton it originally took place in the Oregon State Capitol building. That’s also why it’s on Dec. 24, she added - that was when the building was vacant.
“The only date that was available was Christmas Eve,” Skelton said. “Then it stuck.”
The Scott Mills earthquake of 1993 - or the Spring Break Quake, as most remember it - left the Capitol damaged, forcing the local Tuba Christmas ensemble to find a different location. Further shaking the walls with the frequencies from dozens of baritone instruments seemed like a bad move, Skelton said.
So the following year, the concert moved to the Senate chambers. Lack of seating made the space less than ideal.
The event later shifted to its current home at the Elsinore Theatre, which Skelton said was a perfect fit. In 2014 the Salem group broke away from the national Tuba Christmas franchise, founding its own comparable Tuba Holiday event.
The decision came down to cost for the players, she said. Songbooks and participation fees would run between $60 and $80.
“It was becoming more expensive for players to participate because it was a franchised event. We had to charge a fee,” Skelton said. “We didn’t feel good about that, especially around Christmas time.”
Today, Tuba Holiday is free for all baritone, euphonium or tuba players who want to participate.
“It’s anywhere from professional musicians down to part time players to just enthusiasts. We’ve had kids as young as nine ten years old, and musicians as old as 90,” Rundquist said. “It’s not auditioned. If you want to play, you can play.”
Though the concert is back from its pandemic hiatus this year, organizers are taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus.
To enter the venue, ticket holders will either need to show proof of vaccination or the results of a negative Covid test taken within 48 hours of the performance. All audience members will also be required to wear face masks inside the concert hall.
Additionally, each of the performers will be required to show proof of vaccination in order to participate.
“We just really don’t want people to show up at the door and have to be turned away,” Skelton said.
The show helps raise funds for Salem Symphonic Winds. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased online at www.elsinoretheatre.com or at the box office located at 175 High St. SE. For more information, call the theater at 503-375-3574. The concert begins at noon.
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