Pittsburgh Symphony presenting world premiere of tuba concerto
There’s a certain anticipatory excitement about encountering a new violin concerto, but a tuba concerto is a real rarity and the tuba is an awfully large instrument to be overlooked.
It has come a long way from um-pah-pahs, the children’s piece “Tubby the Tuba” and even the time when tuba players first could perform “The Flight of the Bumblebee” up to tempo. Naturally, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal tuba Craig Knox was thrilled when the symphony offered to commission a concerto for him.
Robert Spano will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony at March 16 and 18 concerts at Heinz Hall. The program is Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Tuba Concerto with soloist Knox, and Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique.”
Knox and the symphony considered a number of composers, but he says Higdon was the obvious choice.
“We were at school together, studying at the Curtis Institute at the same time,” he says. “Her music became very popular and is played all over the place. I’ve played her music in a number of orchestras, including my first year in the PSO when she was composer of the year. I noticed she wrote terrific tuba part in her music. She had sense of the capability of the instrument and seemed to enjoy including it in the fabric of her orchestration.”
Both Knox and Higdon are back at Curtis, now teachers rather than students, which facilitated collaboration on the new concerto. They talked about the instrument’s strength and challenges. Knox was impressed by her interest in learning more about the tuba, how it’s used in standard orchestral repertoire, other solo repertoire and anything that could deepen her knowledge. Higdon told him she bought 40 solo tuba CDs to know what’s out there.
The best tuba writing in orchestra is by Sergei Prokofiev, Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar, according to Knox. He says he especially likes the way Prokofiev uses tuba “not only for the bass voice in the brass section but also alone with woodwinds and strings, which is pretty unusual.”
Higdon’s concerto is in three movements lasting about 18 minutes. Knox says the first movement is very flash and technical, colorful, and with lots of rhythmically intricate call and response interplay between the soloist and orchestra.
Knox loves listening to vocal recordings, especially baritones and bass-baritones, and asked Higdon to consider using his instrument in a vocal and expressive way. He thinks the beautiful slow movement she produced is the heart of the concerto. The short finale has a driving rhythmic pulse.
Knox has had plenty of time to prepare for the premiere. Higdon delivered the music a year ago, along with a piano reduction for rehearsal purposes.
“As it comes closer I’m all the more excited about it,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about what an incredible opportunity it is to be part of a new piece of music but also part of the history of the development of the instrument by adding a new major work to the repertoire.”
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.