RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Hear now the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
(Soundbite of orchestral music)
MONTAGNE: As you can hear, the brass section is going full bore. The Philadelphians open their season next week, and anchoring that imposing brass section will be the youngest member of the orchestra, their brand new principal tuba player, Carol Jantsch.
She is just 21 years old and she beat out 194 other tubists to win the job. She's become the first woman ever to hold the principal tuba chair in one of the nation's top orchestras.
The tuba doesn't get much notice most of the time, so we invited music commentator Miles Hoffman to tell us a little more about Carol Jantsch and her instrument. Good morning, Miles.
MILES HOFFMAN: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So 21 seems awfully young for someone to have reached the lofty position of principal anything in the orchestra world.
HOFFMAN: It is very young. In fact, Renee, Carol Jantsch was 20 when she won the audition last winter. She was still in school. She was a senior at the University of Michigan. She had sent in her resume to the orchestra and they had rejected her. You're still in school. You don't have enough experience.
But then the chairman of the audition committee heard a tape of Carol Jantsch. He listened to this tape and he said, wait a second. We have to have this person in here at least to audition.
MONTAGNE: So they turned her down by looking at her on the page, but must have been rather a nice bit of playing that she sent them on tape.
HOFFMAN: We have that tape, Renee. It's Carol Jantsch's own arrangement actually of a violin concerto of the first movement of the violin concerto by Aram Khachaturian, and Carol arranged this for tuba and piano.
(Soundbite of First Movement of Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto)
MONTAGNE: Miles, the tuba there sounds quite - how would I put it - supple.
HOFFMAN: Yes, and one of the things that people in the business say about Carol Jantsch's playing in particular is that it's not just technically very, very able, but she makes a beautiful sound and she's a very good musician. And the orchestra was happy because they felt that her sound would blend well with the other members of the brass section.
MONTAGNE: Miles, talk to us about the history of the tuba, because I think the first think someone thinks is who thought that up?
HOFFMAN: Well, I can tell you who thought it up - two men in Germany, one of whose names was Wilhelm Wieprecht and the other was Johann Gottfried Moritz. And in 1835 they patented the tuba. It was in Prussia that they did this. So the tuba is actually the youngest regular member of the orchestra.
There are different sizes of tubas, but they all are basically just a big brass tube, a heavy brass tube that's wound around. If you straightened out this brass tube it could be anywhere from 16 to 26 or even 32 feet long. It has a set of valves that can increase the range. You have a mouthpiece at one end that go (makes blowing/buzzing sound) into. You don't just blow. You make a buzzing sound with your lips into the mouthpiece. And then at the other end of the instrument there's a bell, this big flared opening.
There's also, I should mention, a smaller, higher pitched member of the tuba family that many folks have heard of called the euphonium.
MONTAGNE: What about a regular tuba, you know, they look heavy.
HOFFMAN: They are heavy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HOFFMAN: The tuba that most orchestral tubists use is going to weigh anywhere from 25 to 35 pounds, and sometimes it actually sounds heavy and it's meant to. I think we'd get a kick out of listening to a scene from Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrouchka, Renee, where the tuba is meant to convey the image of a dancing bear.
(Soundbite of ballet, Petrouchka)
MONTAGNE: So, tuba sounding, as you said, quite heavy in Stravinsky's Petrouchka. But does that then bring us to why women aren't often seen playing the tuba?
HOFFMAN: No, it's not because it's so heavy. When you're holding the tuba and playing it, it's the chair that you're sitting on that supports the instrument. So holding it up is not the issue. But it requires an enormous amount of air. And, frankly, it's just another one of these preconceptions like the old notion that tuba players, men or women, couldn't play fast - that the instrument couldn't be made to sound virtuosic because the instrument itself was just too unwieldy.
MONTAGNE: Well, play us a piece featuring a tuba where it doesn't sound like that, where it sounds...
(Soundbite of laughter)
HOFFMAN: One of the great modern tuba virtuosos was a man named Roger Bobo. And what we have here is a clip of Roger Bobo playing a tuba version of what was originally a virtuoso trumpet piece. And I think this will knock your socks off.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Miles, not too many people could do that with the tuba, though.
HOFFMAN: No, but more and more people treat the tuba now as an instrument where anything is possible.
MONTAGNE: So back to Carol Jantsch. She's going to be setting an example. Are we going to be seeing young girls taking up the tuba all over America?
HOFFMAN: Well, we already have. There are more and more women studying the tuba in conservatories around the country. And I should mention, as a matter of fact, that at the same time that Carol Jantsch is starting as principal tuba player of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Orchestra has also hired a new principal French horn player, a woman named Jennifer Montone, a 29-year-old woman, to be the principal horn player.
So the doors have been opened and they're opening wider and wider and wider.
MONTAGNE: Miles, play us a piece of music that we can go out on.
HOFFMAN: Well, I think you'll get a big kick out of this, Renee. This is a group called Symphonia, a tuba/euphonium chamber orchestra.
What you're about to hear is 15 tubas and 10 euphoniums playing a piece that I think you'll have no trouble recognizing.
(Soundbite of song, William Tell Overture)
MONTAGNE: Miles, thanks again for joining us.
HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist and artistic director of the American Chamber Players - and I'm saying this really, really fast - as well as the author of the NPR Classical Music Companion.
(Soundbite of song, William Tell Overture)
MONTAGNE: And Carol Jantsch is just the latest in a line of women pioneers in brass. Learn about these other women and the history of brass instruments at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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