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Wednesday, February 22,2012

Tuba in your face

Phil Sinder solos with the Lansing Symphony

by Lawrence Cosentino

The next Lansing Symphony concert takes a stratagem from the playbook of Prussia’s Frederick the Great: Move the artillery to the front.

Principal tuba Phil Sinder will be the soloist for a tuba concerto by American TV and film composer Bruce Broughton. The concerto, sandwiched between Aaron Copland’s bucolic “Appalachian Spring” and Cesar Franck’s lush Symphony in D Minor, is only about 10 minutes long, but it’s a fine pretext to get up close and personal with a symphony mainstay.

Until now, Sinder has been largely content to soldier from the rear, and that suits him fine.

“I like the idea of being the foundation of the orchestra, helping to set the parameters of tempo and dynamic,” he said. “Yet I know I have a supporting role that makes others around me feel comfortable and sound the best.”

But Sinder relishes the chance to exhibit the tuba’s nobility and nuance. “People think it’s a lumbering instrument, unable to function with others,” Sinder said. “I’ve devoted a lot of energy to dispel these myths, show the instrument is adaptable and agile.”

As Frederick the Great put it, “Artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be an ugly brawl.” 

Last month, Sinder premiered another concerto, a magisterial epic written for him by longtime Michigan State University jazz and classical pianist Ron Newman and performed by Sinder and the MSU Symphony.

The Newman concerto was a triumph for all concerned, but it still feels strange for Sinder to get in front of the orchestra.

“To be right up under the conductor’s nose and have 50 string players in close proximity takes a while to get used to,” Sinder said. “It affects how you breathe, how you attack, how you lock in expressive elements and intonation.”

It’s also an ear-opener for the front ranks. “It’s fun for me to be within four feet of a viola or cello and have them experience the tuba at close range,” he said.

Music featuring solo tuba only dates to the 1950s, with a concerto by English pastoralist Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1954 and a sonata by Paul Hindemith in 1955. Since then, dozens of composers have added to the meager repertoire, including film composer John Williams. Sinder played the Williams concerto 20 years ago with the MSU Symphony.

Bruce Broughton, composer of Friday’s concerto, is best known for his Oscar-nominated score for the 1985 Western “Silverado.” Sinder said the tuba concerto “really flies by, especially the final movement, which is a whirlwind.” 

Growing up on Long Island, Sinder played the trumpet. In fifth grade, the tuba seat became vacant. He couldn’t stop eyeing the instrument as it sat in the corner like a lonely, generously proportioned widow. 

It’s said that players come to resemble their instruments; Sinder agrees. “I like to support the underdog, in music or in a debate. And I liked the idea of being the only person playing an instrument, instead of four trumpets or 26 violins.”

On Friday, Sinder will be even only-er than usual. Maestro Timothy Muffitt, who programmed the concert, wanted it that way. “Phil is an extraordinary artist,” Muffitt said. “That was clear to me from day one. I wanted to find some way to bring him out front and feature him.”

The rest of Friday’s concert will speak eloquently, and at length, for itself. In Muffitt’s view, “Appalachian Spring” requires “distinct articulation and clarity of texture.”

“You won’t be hearing something Wagnerian in my approach to it,” he said. “It was originally written for 13 instruments, primarily a piano-driven piece, and it sits in our brain that way.”

In contrast to the simple gifts of Copland, the Franck D minor symphony will close the night with a grandly conceived, lush voyage that takes a while to heave into port.

Muffitt sees Franck not only as a master in his own right, but also a gateway drug to the heady French harmonies of Debussy and Ravel.

“He even pops a harp in there,” Muffitt said. “That’s what we think about with French music — this palette of colors they explore.”


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