Holiday spirit on high at TubaChristmas

thanlon@adn.comDecember 14, 2013 

Dave Schmidt's menu started with a Luna granola bar eight years ago and has evolved to a spread of cheese, crackers and berries on the fourth floor of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.

Schmidt, 67, sat in a folding chair that he brought from home Saturday afternoon with the indoor picnic at his feet. It was his preparation for the annual TubaChristmas -- a free holiday concert dedicated to just tubas and other big brass instruments that make their living in the bass clef. For many audience members, like Schmidt, the community shindig has become a tradition signifying that Christmas isn't far away.

It's also an event, now in its 18th year in Anchorage, for the spirited to go all out on snacks and holiday attire.

On the ground floor of the performing arts center Saturday, 43 musicians played Christmas melodies for about an hour. They traveled from as far as Wasilla and ranged from 10 years old to 72. Anyone can show up to play in TubaChristmas. Some wore Santa hats, others Christmas sweaters. The tubas were wrapped in lights, garland and bows.

"It's just hysterical," said Mary Elizabeth Rider, an usher at the concert.

Andy Sorensen and Susan Murto, attorneys with the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., arrived as the Grinch and Cindy Lou Who. Sorensen covered the horn of his sousaphone in green tulle and taped on construction-paper eyes, a mouth and eyebrows.

Four years ago, Murto sat in the audience while Sorensen played the large brass instrument in a Hawaiian costume. "I was just mortified," she said.

But she's since joined him. At the concert she wore pink footed pajamas with an oversized red Christmas ornament in her lap. Murto doesn't play the tuba but she held one nonetheless.

"The Grinch stole my mouthpiece," Murto told people.

TubaChristmas isn't just an Anchorage thing. The first Tuba Christmas was held at the ice rink at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. Musician Harvey Phillips started it there in 1974 as a tribute to his teacher William Bell, a tuba player who was born on Christmas Day in 1902.

TubaChristmas then just spread. There is now at least one TubaChristmas in every state, including three in Alaska.

Anchorage piloted the concert as an outdoor event back in 1995. But frigid temperatures froze the instruments. Since then, the songs have been taken inside, said Neal Haglund, TubaChristmas conductor and a band teacher at seven Anchorage elementary schools.

The musicians pay $10 to play, and skill levels vary, Hag-lund said.

Jeff Manley, 50, has played the tuba since he was in fifth grade in Michigan. He built his own instrument; it's called a "serpentine pedalphone." Manley and his brother unwound a sousaphone and hooked it up to bicycle wheels back in Michigan in 1985. He shipped it to Anchorage when he moved.

When it's in motion, the pedalphone is a two-person operation. One pedals, and one plays. Saturday, Manley sat stationary on the tractor seat, used in place of a bicycle seat, and blew into the horn. At the other end low tones sounded from a wreath-covered horn.

"You don't have your studded tires on those wheels," a member of the audience noted.

About 450 people listened and sang along to numbers like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman." They crowded into the lobby, lined the stairs and filled the balconies.

"The sound echoes and bends and squirrels up here," Schmidt said from the balcony.

Val Stella, 61, of Anchorage preferred a seat up close. She said the tubas give the event an "old-fashion feel." She used to play the piano and the cello and said TubaChrismas always inspires her to pick up the tuba, but she hasn't yet.

For now she said she'll just listen each year.

"It's the Christmas spirit," Stella said. "It's one of the few events that people are here just for the joy of it."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at or 257-4589.


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