Orchestra Notes (Scott Mendoker, Associate Editor for Orchestras)
A Talk with Gary Ofenloch by Andy Miller
This interview took place in the orchestra members’ lounge in the basement o f Boston’s Symphony Hall, surrounded by pictures o f B SO ’s past. Gary Ofenloch has been Principal Tubist o f the Utah Symphony since 1983, and Principal Tubist o f the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra since 1973. He has taught at the University o f C onnecticut, Northwestern University and Boston University.
Andy Miller: Have you met your expectations in-so-far as the goal that you’ve set for yourself on the tuba? In other words, are you where you want to be?
Gary Ofenloch: That’s a yes and no answer. My goal was to play in a fulltime, 52-week American orchestra. And, in that regard, yeah, I achieved that with Utah Symphony. Would I like to be higher up on the orchestral totem pole? Would I like to have been in the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony or New York Philharmonic? Absolutely.
AM: Was your goal strictly orchestra playing or did it include solo playing?
GO: I always just wanted to play in an orchestra. Probably because I wasn’t very good at it, I never had any solo desires. I played quintets because I didn’t have an orchestra job. I just like the orchestral repertoire. Show me Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner and Berlioz in the brass quintet literature. You can only play Ewald, Bozza, Arnold and the “This Old Man March” so many times (laughs).
AM: Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently to help prepare for your role as an orchestral tubist?
GO: Audition-wise I think I would have made some changes. On early auditions, I would have been a little more open minded to change. I remember I was in the finals for Houston, and I asked one of the trombone players how I played and if there was something I could do differently to get the job next time. He looked up my number and told me, and it’s always stuck with me to this day: “When you realize that orchestral tuba playing isn’t a weightlifting contest, you’re gonna get yourself a good job.” I always thought it was the person who played the biggest and loudest who was gonna win (laughs). And I think the next audition or two after that was Utah, which I won.
AM: What about for the job itself? Now that you have the job, was there anything that you could have done earlier that could have made your job or transition easier?
GO: I never really thought of it like that. In an orchestra, you oftentimes end up spending more time with the people in the orchestra than your spouse, and you have to learn to accommodate. You have to learn to adapt to bigger sounds, to smaller sounds, to brighter sounds. I think the key in a job is being flexible and not being stubborn. The section in Utah is wonderful; the section in Boston Pops Esplanade is wonderful. They’re very different, so I try to adapt my playing for those two jobs. 1 think that the key to a successful career is to always have the ability to adjust and adapt, and to never get so stubborn about one style. We get stereotyped as, “Oh, you’re a bright player, you’re a dark player. You generally play long, you generally play short…” It doesn’t work. You’ve got to be flexible. The great players are the ones that can show diversity, show flexibility.
AM: So, what are you playing on these days?
GO: My main horn is a Me ini Weston 2165 Warren Deck model of which I have 2; one at home, one at work. I love it. It’s the type of instrument that if I’m well rested, well fed, and in good shape, it gets a glorious sound. It’s exactly the sound that I’m trying to get. However, it’s not necessarily user friendly. If I’m a little tired or a little hungry or not in great shape, the horn will amplify those issues. It’s not the easiest horn to play, but when I’m on, I love it. I can’t imagine a better instrument. The mouthpiece I play is a mouthpiece that Warren Deck and I worked on over 15 years ago. We started with a Bach 24 AW which we modified many times over, then ultimately copied with Terry Warburton and finalized the finished product with Jeff Parke. It’s got my name on it, but Warren probably had as much to do with it as I did. On my F, I use a slightly modified Bach 12 which works fine for me.
AM: What F tubas do you have?
GO: I’ve got a whole bunch of them. Actually, I have 5 of Kilton Vinal Smith’s (who was the predecessor to Chester Schmitz in the Boston Symphony Orchestra) tubas. 1 don’t play those horns a lot. I have 2 Kruspes, an old Alexander, a Schmidt and a Courtois from him. The Courtois has a great history. It was brought to the U.S. by Ravel for the first performance by the BSO of Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s a single C French tuba, 6 piston valves. My main F tuba is a B&S goldbrass, earlier generation. My other F tuba, which 1 use mostly for solo playing, and always for Bydlo, is a 6’Valve Alexander goldbrass which 1 bought from Chester Schmitz about 15 years ago.
AM: How did you happen to obtain these horns from Mr. Smith?
GO: I met him through a friend years ago on Vinalhaven Island in Maine after he retired, probably around 1980 or so. We just hit it off, and every time I’d go visit him, I got a chance to play his horns. He knew that someone should be playing them, so every time I’d go up. I’d go home with a different tuba. The Kruspe tubas are what he played exclusively, and he always played F. I don’t know too many people who have Kruspe F tubas, but 1 have two of them. The 5th valve is like a Bb valve. He would play the Ride (Die Walkiire) on them. Anything! All the low stuff. He never played the big tuba.
AM: What about any other CC tubas?
GO: What I played before the 6/4 was a 5/4 Hirsbrunner, 5 rotary valves. My first horn was a Bell Model Meinl Weston CC. 1 got that instrument in 1968 when I was a student of Arnold Jacobs. It was at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Convention. I was walking around with my teacher, and it was like the Pied Piper…everyone was following Jacobs! I met Bill Bell for the first time there. I played that horn and liked it, so I took it home with me. I remember it was $805. It listed for $1,610. They gave it to Jake for that price because he said he was going to buy it. He said, “Just give me the money when you get it.” So, Jake bought it for me (laughs). For the Strauss recordings by the BSO from the 1970’s that I’m on, I used that 3/4 Bell Model.
AM: Now, you mentioned that Mr. Smith played on nothing but F tubas, and you played on a 3/4 CC tuba in the 70’s. Now it seems that everybody thinks you have to play on a 6/4 to play in an American orchestra. What are your thoughts on this?
GO: I don’t think you need to play on a 6/4 horn. It’s nice to have if you’re playing Rhinegold or Gotterdamerung, or Prokofiev 5, even. But, I think a really good, focused sounding 5/4 is plenty big to win any audition. Look what Gene played on at his St. Louis audition – and what Warren used at the New York Philharmonic audition. Generally, they played 4/4 instruments. AM: What about actually sitting in the orchestra, not taking the audition? GO: I think for the BSOs and NY Philharmonics of this world, to keep up with the large equipment used by the trombones and trumpets, you’ve got to match it, so you’ve got to keep up that way. You sacrifice accuracy, you sacrifice control, but you get a big sound on it, and that’s for sure.
AM: Is there a future for the symphony orchestra?
GO: I hope there is at least until I retire (laughs)! They talk about the “graying” of the audiences, but it’s always been that way. People’s tastes change. You look at pictures of the BSO… see these pictures on the wall from 50 years ago? You don’t see 18 year olds out there. People’s tastes change, and you mature into listening. People who aren’t brought up in music like you and me, their tastes change when they get older, so you see the older people in audiences just like you do now. I’m not concerned about it. Great music is great music. There are also different phases. I remember in the 1970’s, Mahler was the big craze with Chicago putting out all those Mahler recordings. But, I don’t think things are gonna change. Great music will always be there.
AM: If you had to write down your job description with the Utah Symphony, what would it be?
GO: Everybody talks about the importance of rhythm, pitch, and having a foundation. I’ve always felt that brass sections should balance from the bottom. Just lay it down and let the other players ride on top of it. The job description is to present a strong fundamental base to the orchestra.
AM: What about for the POPS?
GO: You’ve gotta be able to swing, and you have to be able to read. Where in Utah you might have four rehearsals for a concert, in the POPS you might have one rehearsal for two concerts. We’ve played concerts where we haven’t even looked at the piece, and you’d better be able to read it. Also, the volume level is different. We rarely play a true pianissimo in the POPS. It’s a lot of loud…there aren’t too many pianissimos in Star Wars and Superman (laughs). It’s a little bit different approach. You don’t have to swing through Mahler 5, but you’d better be able to swing when you’re doing some of the POPS arrangements. I think I also play a little brighter in POPS…try to get a little more presence in the sound.
You know, with [Keith] Lockhart, we divide the POPS concerts into thirds. The first third is light classics…yeah, light classics: Die Meistersinger Overture! The middle third is usually the soloist, which is sometimes classical. Then the last third is the “StarWars / Superman” third. That’s when you really let your hair down. So, you’ve gotta show that diversity throughout.
AM: What do you tell an aspiring orchestral tubist?
GO: There’s always room at the top…if you’re the best player that day. I’d tell a young player to listen to a lot of styles because there’s more than just one out there. In that respect, I think tuba is like French horn. There are a bunch of different colors that are acceptable; a bunch of different approaches. For example, you’ve got Jamie Somerville in the BSO who plays one way, and you’ve got Phil Myers in NY…completely different, completely valid. Add to that Dale Clevenger in Chicago. Three of the biggest-name horn players in the world. All play very differently. Learn what you want to be. Listen to everyone and pick out what you ultimately want to do. When 1 was growing up, three of the biggest names in tuba were Roger Bobo, Arnold Jacobs and John Fletcher. You couldn’t find three more different players. Add Ron Bishop and Chester Schmitz for that matter. Five completely different qualities, colors and styles. 1 was lucky because my main teachers were Arnold Jacobs, Chester Schmitz, Harvey Phillips and Toby Hanks. All four are completely different players and immense talents. So, you take from them what you ultimately want to be, but find your own style. Listen to everything. Listen to old Jacobs recordings. 1 always say that when you want to hear how something goes, you can’t go wrong with an old CSO recording. As for newer ones, listen to Chicago and New York. Listen to Pokomy and Deck. That’s the state-of-the-art. There are two, again, very different players, both equally valid, and you can learn a lot from either one of them.
Andy Miller is currendy a DMA student at Boston University, Instructor o f Tuba at The Boston Conservatory, and member o f the Paramount Brass Quintet. He holds Bachelor o f Music Education and Master o f Performance degrees from DePaul University. His principal teachers include Floyd Cooley, Gene Pokomy, Gary Ofenloch and Roger Rocco.