Beacons of the holiday season are all around us – homes adorned in lights, tinsel on the lintel, and big-bearded jolly men in red suits. But for many in Victoria, the true heralding of Christmas comes with the baritone call of the tuba.
Pacific Northwest tuba and euphonium musicians, usually solitary figures in orchestras and bands, have massed together for a single free concert for the past three decades under the guidance of Eugene Dowling, a professor in the University of Victoria school of music.
This Saturday, Dowling and scores of tuba musicians young and old will play Christmas tunes for the 35th year running, in Market Square. The City of Victoria has even declared it “Tuba Christmas Day.”
“It’s been a marvellous 35 years. The audience is growing exponentially. I think this year will be something big,” Dowling said. “They say it’s not Christmas until you’ve had Tuba Christmas. A lot of people say it starts the Christmas season for them.”
Dowling imported a Tuba Christmas to his newly adopted home of Victoria in the mid-1970s after experiencing a version of it in Chicago.
“The first time was between the two Eatons buildings where the Bay Centre is now. We were huddled under a tarp, about 25 or 30 of us,” he laughed. “I really enjoy the camaraderie.”
Last year the event drew 75 musicians who braved a downpour in the open-air section of Market Square. This year they’ve thankfully secured the covered area.
High and middle school students from Spectrum, Reynolds, Esquimalt and Oak Bay will join UVic music students and members of the Greater Victoria Concert Band and the Naden Band, among others.
“Last year it was a bit moist under the tents. The 62-year-old conductor got drenched. At the end I took my sheet music and rung it out. It absorbed the rain like a sponge,” Dowling said.
“I’m glad we are able to raise money for charity and bring people together. And some schools bring big tuba sections. It becomes a point of pride to bring the most tubas and euphoniums.”
Dowling, who lives in Gordon Head, took up the tuba at in 1961 at his school in rural Michigan, and went on to play for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and then the Victoria Symphony Orchestra as principle tubist for 25 years. His 2008 album The English Tuba earned a Juno nomination.
He’s had a successful music career that continues to this day, but the tuba was an instrument thrust upon Dowling at age 11.
“I think I was sick the day they were handing out instruments (at school). When I went to the band room everything was taken, so the band teacher chose it for me,” he said. “Who knew I’d get really good at it?
“It was tough getting it around. I’d be dragging it off and on school buses. I’m in my 60s now and I’m still dragging it around.”
Tuba Christmas is Saturday, Dec. 7 from 1 to 3 p.m. in Market Square.
On Sunday, Dec. 8 at 2:30 p.m., UVic music students perform the Tuba Christmas Reprise in the MacLaurin Building recital hall at UVic. Admission is by donation.