Brass Band adding some oom-pah

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When James Gourlay travels with his tuba, he has no choice but to pack lightly.

"It weighs 44 pounds, which is exactly the airline's baggage limit these days," he says. "So when I travel to do concerts, I have to take paper clothes."

Fortunately, he won't have to travel too far for the River City Brass' latest concert series, a celebration of the brass band's bass line called "Octubafest."

As the music director for River City Brass for more than a year, Mr. Gourlay holds Pittsburgh in high esteem.

River City Brass

Octubafest

James Gourlay, conductor and tuba

Where and When: 7:30 tonight, Palace Theatre, Greensburg; 3 p.m. Sunday, Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center, Johnstown; 7:30 pm Tuesday, Upper St. Clair High School; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, Midland; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland; 3 p.m. Sunday at Baldwin High School

Tickets: vary; visit www.rivercitybrass.org or call 1-800-292-7222.

"Pittsburghers are very loyal to their cultural organizations -- 86 percent of our audience members are regular subscribers," he noted.

Mr. Gourlay, originally from Scotland, has been playing the tuba for more than 30 years. He came upon it by chance.

"When I was 10, my school asked for volunteers to be in a brass band, but nobody volunteered. As I was the tallest person in the group, I was handed the tuba and told to play it. It was serendipitous. It wasn't an instrument I chose -- It was chosen for me."

Since then, Mr. Gourlay has cultivated a stellar reputation as a solo tuba performer all over the world, performing in both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Zurich opera, each for more than 10 years.

"There is no more popular advocate for the tuba as a solo instrument than James Gourlay," BBC Radio has opined.

He says the tuba lends itself to being a solo instrument: "The tuba's not really the most popular instrument anywhere in the world. It's a very good instrument for an individualist, as there's only one in an orchestra!"

For Mr. Gourlay, the tuba compares favorably to other brass instruments: "It is an incredibly expressive and flexible instrument. It has a larger range of notes available than any other brass instrument. While the trumpet has a range of 21/2 octaves, the tuba has five."

Part of the inspiration for "Octubafest" is to show how vital the 'oom-pah' of the tuba -- and its baby brother, the euphonium -- is to the brass band sound. Orchestral pieces tend to give a small role to the tuba. He once performed a piece from Wagner's "Ring" cycle where he played only two notes, 90 minutes apart. In a brass band, however, the tuba plays all the time.

"You've got the thing on your face permanently," he jokes.

The concert program will be anything but normal fare for a brass band, ranging from Rogers & Hammerstein ("You'll Never Walk Alone") to jazz standards ("Autumn Leaves") to cinematic favorites ("The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly").

As part of celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, River City Brass will be taking a step beyond typical audience participation and sing-alongs. It will be premiering an overture specifically written for the concert series by Darrol Barry, resident composer and arranger for the Royal Guard of Oman, and then ask the audiences to suggest a name . After the run of "Octubafest" concerts ends, the ensemble will announce the winning title.

Mr. Gourley says that with "Octubafest," "we are presenting a type of music that is serious, but also a lot of fun, that recaptures Germany's harvest festival."


Read Connolly is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and musician.


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