With a Goal of 700 to 800 Performers, the Concert is Moving from the Kauffman Center to Municipal Auditorium
Kansas City Symphony Executive Director Frank Byrne has been around tubas most of his life, including his early music career playing the big daddy of the brass family for the United States Marine Band.
Byrne joined the band with the goal of being a full-time tuba player and wound up a full-time administrator. Although he never lost his oompah love, Byrne also never anticipated the day when he would try to put together the biggest tuba troupe on the planet.
Yet that’s precisely the plan for the symphony’s 11th annual TubaChristmas concert, which will officially attempt to break the record for the largest tuba ensemble in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Why try to make history now, after a decade’s worth of tuba-happy Tannenbaums?
“Because we can,” Byrne says. “We have had such interest in this event and it’s become quite a tradition after 10 years. We just thought, ‘You know, why not?’”
The current world record for largest tuba ensemble was set in 2007 at Disneyland, with 502 participants performing Christmas carols on tubas and baritone horns. In comparison, the symphony’s TubaChristmas event in recent years has totaled around 700 performers, but it’s taken two concerts each holiday season to reach that number.
So, for a practical shot at breaking the record, the symphony will perform only one TubaChristmas concert this year. The event will also move from its established home at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to nearby Municipal Auditorium, where there will be plenty of room for additional performers and audience members.
“In the arena, we’re going to be performing where they might otherwise have a basketball court,” Byrne says. “So we’ll be on the floor and using every bit of space we possibly can, and the audience will be seated in the bowl around us. We hope to have 700 or 800 performers.
And, audience-wise, I would say 2,000 to 3,000. It’s pretty significant.”
Big Sound, Big Recruiting Tool
TubaChristmas concerts have been performed since 1979 in Kansas City with the support of various organizations and venues. Some turnouts have been better than others, says veteran TubaChristmas participant Paul Scofield, who plays trombone in the Kansas City rhythm and blues revue 4 Fried Chickens and Coke. He remembers especially light attendance on a bad-weather day about 15 years ago at the old Lyric Theatre.
“Every time it snows on the day of the concert, you always wonder how many people are going to show up,” Scofield says. “The first year it was held at the Lyric, there was a big snowstorm and I think there were less than 100 tubas there — but that’s still a lot of tubas.
“The sound you get from being in the group is incredible. It’s just big. And the thing about having that many people is nobody has to play very loud, which is real disappointing to a lot of the young guys — they really just want to blow their brains out. But it’s always great to see the band directors bringing in their bunch.”
A constant for TubaChristmas has been the event’s rewarding relationship with middle school and high school bands, whose enthusiastic envoys on tuba and baritone typically make up the majority of TubaChristmas players.
“This is a big deal for a lot of young people,” Byrne says. “Band directors have told us that being able to participate in TubaChristmas is a major recruiting tool for them to encourage students to play these instruments.”
True believers include Louisburg High School Band Director John Cisetti, who utilizes the appealing spotlight of TubaChristmas to inspire his students to take up and stick with the tuba or baritone.
“The low brass is not as glamorous as the clarinets or the flutes or the trumpets, but they’re very, very important to the sound of the band,” Cisetti says. “And since I started doing TubaChristmas 25 years ago, it has given my kids motivation to play those instruments.
“That one program has done more to improve the sound of my band than anything else I’ve done in my 40 years of teaching, because kids will work all year long on their tubas and baritones, just so that they can shine at TubaChristmas.”
Camdyn Clark, a senior at Louisburg High School, got hooked on the baritone at her first TubaChristmas in the sixth grade. She hasn’t missed one since.
“Tubas and baritones don’t normally get the melody,” Clark says. “So when TubaChristmas comes, that’s when we get to do the melody and show the potential of the instrument. I love the way it sounds with the Christmas music, because it’s such a deep tone. It’s really pretty, because it’s kind of like a chorus.”
While most tuba and baritone players are male, Clark’s participation in TubaChristmas “shows that girls are capable of doing it, too, and being good at it,” she says. “I’ve been first chair of my section since I started playing.”
And don’t overlook the social aspect of collectively tooting holiday music, Clark says.
“I have so many friends that I’ve met through TubaChristmas,” she says. “Because even as middle schoolers, we would go with the high schoolers. So I have friends that I went to TubaChristmas with who are now married and having children. That’s pretty awesome.”
Whether this year’s TubaChristmas goes into the record book, Clark and her low-brass cohorts will give it their all, including making their horns look as festive as possible.
“Before we leave for the event, we all come to school early and decorate our horns with garlands and lights and stuff,” she says. “Two years ago, I won best-decorated horn, so they gave me a little TubaChristmas headband where I put all my pins from each year. I’m really excited to add another one.”
The Kansas City Symphony presents TubaChristmas 2018 at noon Friday, Dec. 7, at Municipal Auditorium, 301 W. 13th St. Admission is free. Musicians wishing to participate may register for a $10 fee at kcsymphony.org/StaticCtl/TubaChristmasAct.