When it comes to classical music, the biggest instruments often get the least attention from composers and listeners. Usually, tuba players are hidden behind the bells of their instruments in the back row of the band or orchestra. The euphonium rarely has a spot in the orchestra at all, and your average layperson has no idea what it is (picture, basically, a baby tuba).
Tomorrow night, members of the School of Music’s tuba and euphonium studios will have a moment in the spotlight with the help of arranger and conductor Todd Fiegel. The University of Michigan Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble, which is made up of tubists and euphoniumists from the studio of Music Prof. Fritz Kaenzig, will perform The Celluloid Tubas Show, a complete collection of Fiegel’s arrangements of music from features, silent films and cartoons on Saturday at 8 p.m. in Britton Recital Hall. The concert is part of Octubafest, the tuba studio’s annual series of concerts showcasing the talents of University tuba and euphonium students and the oft-hidden peculiarities of their instruments.
The Celluloid Tubas Show is arranged for an ensemble of three tubas and three euphoniums and is known throughout the tuba and euphonium community for its difficulty. The program arranges excerpts of the scores to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” “Silverado,” the silent film “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life” (which Fiegel composed himself), “Dumbo” and “Looney Tunes” cartoons featuring Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. An arrangement of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is on the program as well.
“It’s really exciting,” Kaenzig said of Fiegel’s visit. “We haven’t done this (program) at Michigan for almost 10 years.” It was Fiegel’s friendship with Kaenzig that originally inspired him to arrange music from feature films for the tuba. The two University of Wisconsin at Madison music students shared an affinity for movies – 16mm feature films and cartoons that they traded and often viewed together at parties with other students. “One time we had a film party that lasted 48 hours straight – no break,” Fiegel remembered. “Twenty-four features with cartoons, shorts, popcorn, a hot dog machine, half a barrel of beer, the whole thing.”
Fiegel, a former professor of trumpet and conducting at the University of Montana and former director of bands at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Idaho State University and Muskingum College, first fell in love with film music during this time; the scores to films like “Psycho” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” were the first to draw his attention to scores. After an arrangement he wrote for Kaenzig called “Tuba Wars” (guess which movie that one’s from), Fiegel composed a score to the silent film “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life,” in which the hero saves a damsel in distress from an evil villain who has tied her to the railroad tracks. That was the first of the Celluloid Tubas selections, but not the last. “Each (arrangement) is different. Each has its own charm,” Fiegel said. “‘Barney Oldfield’ is dear to me, Fiegel explained. The piece features classical and popular themes. “It turned out that it was impossible for anybody to conduct (the piece) other than myself because it was so hard to synchronize – It’s been kinda neat, because I always get to go out and conduct it,” he laughed.
“The (music from the) Roadrunner cartoon is some of the most amazing film music ever written, and it was just really fascinating to be able to tear that score apart and put it back together to do it live,” Fiegel said. “It’s fun for me as a conductor because it’s always a challenge. I have to be on my game. It’s really rewarding.”
The Celluloid Tubas Show has been performed by many different tuba and euphonium ensembles, including the Army Band Tubas. Fiegel believes this project couldn’t be as popular or feature the same tongue-in-cheek appeal if these scores were arranged for any other instrument. Indeed, ensembles often leave out the arrangement of music from “Silverado” because it’s so difficult.
The members of UMETE agree. “We’re not taking ourselves too seriously, but we’re still performing at the highest level possible,” doctoral Music student and tubist Mike Nickens said. Nickens arranged a solo version with four-part accompaniment of Chick Corea’s La Fiesta; the piece, which will be played in tonight’s concert of solo performances, features Music senior and euphoniumist Alaina Alster as soloist.
“It’s really fun, really hard music,” Music graduate student Matt Bookert explained. “We spend so much time counting rests and letting other people take the melody and do exciting things, and now we get a chance to play exciting stuff.”
The desire for tough, technical music that puts these musicians in the spotlight is what makes The Celluloid Tubas Show so popular for tubists and euphoniumists and engaging for audiences. “That’s part of the charm, part of my motivation for writing,” Fiegel said. “The tuba especially, and the euphonium, in a way, have never had the spotlight. – Because of my friendship with (Kaenzig) and the incredible teacher he is, and his students and how well they play, it became a challenge – a pleasing challenge – to take on. To give the tubas and euphoniums something that they can really get their teeth into.”