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Palmer House Hosts “Tuba Christmas”

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Tuba Christmas at Palmer House Hilton

Some 360 tuba players performed an hour-long concert at the Palmer House Hilton on Dec. 18, 2010, for the annual “Tuba Christmas” concert. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – A standing-room-only crowd filled the Grand Ballroom of the Palmer House Saturday for a Chicago tradition — Tuba Christmas.

It was part gala holiday event and part memorial for its founder, Harvey Phillips, known as the “Heifetz of the Tuba.”

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Phillips died Oct. 20 at the age of 80 at his home, “Tubaranch,” in Bloomington, Ind., where for many years he was on the faculty of the School of Music at Indiana University.

Several members of Phillips’ family were in the audience.

Among the 360 who played were the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal tuba player, Gene Pokorny, and 10-year-old Gerry Luc.

“It’s kind of like a big get-together with a bunch of people and you get to see, for one thing, how people decorate their tubas,” Gerry said. “It’s just a lot of fun.”

Gerry admitted that he could actually play only about half of the songs during the hour-long concert, and that he watched his sister, who sat next to him, the rest of the time.

Pokorny told the crowd that Tuba Christmas is a singular moment for those who play an instrument so often relegated to the back benches of the orchestra.

“The whole idea of Tuba Christmas is the idea that amateurs and hobbyists and professionals all kind of coming together and stripping away all of our resumes,” he said, kidding that they tossed the resumes into “a giant bonfire.”

“We’re all here for one idea — the chance to make music basically with everything below middle C,” he said.

That democratic element to the concert — anyone with a tuba Sousaphone or euphonium was welcome to play — is what has made Tuba Christmas so popular among musicians of all levels of talent.

“There’s just something about the democratic inclusiveness of this that’s an essential, core value of the whole thing,” said retired U.S. Army Band conductor Bryan Shelburne, whose job was to keep them all on the same page — with just one hour of practice.

“We would love a week. A week of practice would be good,” Shelburne said. “But it wouldn’t make the heart that they bring to what they do any greater than it is in this moment.”

Shelburne recalled how Phillips, by then a renowned player, a co-founder of the New York Brass Quintet and orchestra contractor for such luminaries as Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky and Gunther Schuller, first approached an official of New York’s Rockefeller Center about staging a free holiday tuba concert on the center’s ice rink in 1973.

He said the phone fell silent and then Phillips began to give the official unlisted phone numbers for friends — such as Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould and Andre Kostelanetz. The official checked, and within an hour, Rockefeller Center gave him the green light.

Thus, Tuba Christmas was born. Phillips conducted the Chicago version, which has steadily grown in popularity, for the last 10 years of his life.

When it was over, Shelburne said Phillips would have been proud.

“Harvey’s legacy is great and I’ll embrace it as long as I can stand on my feet and wave an arm,” he said.

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