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Principal tuba player of the Houston Symphony, Dave Kirk is the soloist. Co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in December by tuba player Carol Jantsch, the four-movement work is an exciting addition to the tuba repertoire and is steeped in Marsalis’ deep understanding of jazz and how modern American music engages with the European canon. . It also contains many notes.
“There are more notes in this piece than I will play in the entire 2021-22 symphonic season,” laughs Kirk, “and that includes the Pops gigs, Family Series, backstage warm-up — all.”
Kirk, who has been the principal tuba player since 1982, refers to the fact that in most orchestral writing the tuba plays a vital but supporting role, usually playing the root of the harmonies and supporting the percussion. For his contribution to the classical tuba repertoire, Marsalis draws on his experience as a New Orleans native, who grew up hearing the sounds of the sousaphone, a specially designed tuba used in second-line marching bands and named d ‘After the American composer John Philip Sousa.
“In New Orleans, the tuba plays a very special role,” says Kirk, who met Marsalis when they were both students at the Juilliard School. “It gets the party started and keeps it going.” In that spirit, the concerto’s second movement, “Boogaloo Americana,” evokes the atmosphere of a New Orleans street party and includes moments of the orchestra slamming a percussive backing.
In contrast, the concerto’s third movement, “Lament,” is both introspective and melancholy. Marsalis’ father, Ellis, a master pianist and beloved mentor to countless jazz musicians, died of complications from Covid-19 on April 1, 2020 – but Kirk is reluctant to attach this tragedy to the emotional weight of the music. “When I play the solo part, the ending feels very polished to me,” says Kirk. “But when you listen to what the orchestra is doing, it’s not as dark and heavy as what the tuba part entails. It’s more of a New Orleans vibe, where yes, there’s a veil of tragedy, but at the same time, there’s a spirit where it shouldn’t be allowed to linger too long.
Kirk describes the concerto’s fourth and final movement, “In Bird’s Basement”, as “a serious departure from lamentation”. “Bird” was of course the nickname of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, one of the pioneers of bebop, where breakneck tempos and harmonic complexity merged and forever changed the language of jazz. “It’s very pyrotechnic,” Kirk says of the fourth movement. “He takes the snorkel on a journey that most people wouldn’t expect in terms of technique and speed.”
For many listeners, as well as many members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, hearing a tuba play the melody during the entirety of a 20-minute concerto will be a new, even surprising experience. But Kirk, like Marsalis, relishes the opportunity to open people’s ears.
“When you play a tuba solo, chances are 95% of the people who hear you have never heard of such a thing,” says Kirk. “It’s pretty cool to be able to wow people when you do something like that.”
David Kirk (photo courtesy of the Houston Symphony Orchestra)
Wynton Marsalis (photo by Danny Clinch)
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