WKAR's Melissa Benmark talks with Lansing Symphony Orchestra music director Timothy Muffitt and MSU professor of Tuba and Euphonium Phil Sinder about the next Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert. Sinder is the soloist in a Tuba Concerto by TV and film composer, Bruce Broughton.
PHIL SINDER: This piece is actually one of the long-standing pieces in our repertoire. It’s existed since the mid 1970s. So, believe it or not, it’s 35 years old.
TIMOTHY MUFFITT: I had no idea.
SINDER: And in relation to our main repertoire, which dates from the 50s, this is quite a terrific piece, one that everyone knows and is played quite often. The composer, a famous film/TV writer, also has written a number of chamber works and feature works, most of them for his friends in the Los Angeles area. And so, tubist Tommy Johnson, who collaborated with him on many film and TV projects, was the recipient of this particular concerto.
MUFFITT: It really sets the tuba in a beautiful light, the piece does. I think it takes advantage of everything the instrument can do, from being an instrument capable of creating a beautiful, singing line, to one that’s remarkable facility and virtuosity. And also there’s a little bit of humor in the piece, too.
MELISSA BENMARK: Okay.
MUFFITT: It opens with a sort of interesting take on the theme from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” showing up in the contrabassoon, so kind of in the depths of the register of the orchestra. So, there’s a little bit of humor to it, there’s a lot of beauty to it, there’s a lot of virtuosity to it, and brilliantly scored. And I think for me and the repertoire that I know for tuba and orchestra, which isn’t all of it, but the pieces I know, this one really stands out as a unique and engaging piece.
BENMARK: Phil Sinder, I asked you before we sat down for this interview to tell me what you wished someone would ask you about playing the tuba. Because I have found that not only I but every interviewer I’ve ever heard always has some question that deals with the marginalization of the instrument. That it’s the deepest or the biggest or the most unusual. What do you wish someone would ask you about being a tuba soloist?
SINDER: Right, Melissa. You’re right on. We always get those kinds of questions about how much we weigh or how fun it is to go through the airport.
BENMARK: Standard tuba joke. Insert here.
SINDER: And so, the question I think I’d like to explore is, what is fun about playing the tuba?
BENMARK: Well, go ahead!
SINDER: For me, it’s not only the chance to play a solo, but I think what we do on a regular basis, which is to provide the foundation for whatever group we’re in, whether it’s a brass quintet or band or an orchestra, a brass section in an orchestra. It’s really fun to set the standard metrically and dynamically and to help set the pitch for the rest of the orchestra.
And even though that doesn’t go as noticed by audience members as we might like, it’s that sort of supportive underdog role that I think many players gravitate to.
MUFFITT: You would certainly notice if the tuba weren’t’ there. The tuba is one of those instruments that adds, to talk in architectural terms, it adds another storey to the sound. And it takes a building that might be ten storeys tall and makes it eleven by adding one to the bottom.
And this is just one instrument. There’s only tuba player in an orchestra. And it isn’t even about the pitch. There are other instruments in the orchestra that play at the same pitch level. But it’s the sonority of the instrument and the warmth and breadth of the sound that just provides a remarkable foundation to the overall sound of the orchestra. Much the way the timpani operates. You know, the timpani operates in that same way of adding a highlight to the bottom line.
BENMARK: I do find myself wondering, if you’re in a situation where you’re playing that foundational role so much, and as you said, if it wasn’t there you’d notice it. You know, much like if your bass player in your rock band stops playing. Nobody ever thanks him for playing a good bass line, but if it’s not there, everybody gets bent.
BENMARK: How do you prepare yourself, then, from going from that really serving role, to being virtuosic, to being the center of attention?
SINDER: You know, in addition to leaving the back of the orchestra where we can wear socks with holes in them on occasion and not shine our shoes, it’s wonderful to be in a different location in the orchestra where we get to sit next to the strings. So the sense of tuning and ensemble and attack is completely different. So I’m preparing for that sensation as we complete our rehearsals on the concerto.
And, you know, it’s the idea of leading the piece and setting the standard for the kinds of attacks, the kinds of dynamics, the phrasing, the shaping, that’s really fun for me to explore. And it’s something you think about every day but you don’t get a chance to do routinely.
BENMARK: Timothy Muffitt, “Appalachian Spring” also on the program, and that is so well known, and I think for so many people just fits that American music ideal. Talk about entering this piece. How do you approach it internally when you’re getting ready to conduct this music?
MUFFITT: Well, it is exactly right. It does kind of set the standard for American music. This came from the period of Copland’s output where all of his most popular pieces came. All of Aaron Copland’s music doesn’t sound like “Appalachian Spring.” He really explored many different styles over his career. This is music from right around World War Two, where, whether it was a conscious effort or not, I think many American composers—Copland, Roy Harris, Schuman—a lot of them were trying to write music that not only had an American thrust to it, but also was optimistic and uplifting. And at least that, now that the dust has kind of settled on that era, that’s what it looks like when we look back.
Coming at this piece is always a pleasure. I mean, it really is a masterpiece. Thinking through the story of the ballet and thinking about the drama in a way this music is meant to highlight and inspire is certainly a big part of one of the things I think about every day as I begin my work on the piece. Then also on a purely musical level, it’s just remarkably inspired music. Really from beginning to end there are no patchy moments where obviously the composer was really trying to make this passage work. This, I think, probably flowed quite easily from his pen, if I were to guess.
BENMARK: And if it didn’t, it sure sounds like it.
MUFFITT: It sure sounds like it, yeah.
BENMARK: It was originally for chamber ensemble, so there is a simplicity even in the orchestration to the way it sounds, anyway. I’m sure it’s not simple to play. Then you go to French Romanticism, Caesar Franck, the Symphony in D minor, which of course, the Tuba Concerto in this program comes between them so there’s a little bit of a reset. But talk about the Franck a little bit if you would.
MUFFITT: Well, this entire program is driven by the tuba. We chose “Appalachian Spring” because it didn’t have a tuba in it.
BENMARK: Okay. Don’t feel bad, Dr. Sinder.
MUFFITT: So that Phil would be able to be…because here was the other option. The Franck D minor Symphony is one of the works in the repertoire where, exactly what I was saying earlier about the contribution of the tuba. This is quintessential tuba music, the Franck D minor Symphony. And this is a place where my options were, I could hire somebody else to play the Franck, and have Phil just make the solo appearance. But then I would lose the opportunity to have one of the great tuba players on the planet playing the Franck D minor Symphony with us.
So, we open the program with a work that doesn’t use the tuba so he’s fresh for his concerto. And then we’ll have intermission and then he’ll come in and you’ll hear him in his glory in the setting in the low brass section. And this piece is a true sonic feast, the Franck D minor Symphony. And typical of what we expect from French romanticism, it’s beautifully shaded and colored music in the way instruments are combined, and the orchestration is exquisite. It’s music on a grand scale. Franck was an organist and you can feel that.
BENMARK: It shows, huh?
MUFFITT: Yeah, you can feel that conception in the spaciousness of the music. For your listeners who maybe aren’t familiar with this piece, it’s immediately satisfying the way great romantic symphonies are. But there’s also a great deal of beauty in the detail, for those who are familiar with it, and hearing it time and time again.