99-tuba salute

tubasTuba players came from all over to play at USC's Bovard Auditorium in tribute to the member of their club whose deep notes you have heard the most. Tommy Johnson, who died in October at age 71, sat first chair in Hollywood bands and orchestras for decades. He soloed the dramatic notes when the shark stalks in Jaws, answered for the space aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and is thought to be the first to play Rimsky-Korsakov's super-fast "Flight of the Bumble Bee" on the tuba. William Booth of the Washington Post Style section was there Sunday for a concert that pretty much would, and probably could, only happen here.

When the conductor promised the full house this was a performance never attempted before, "and something you may never see again," he wasn't kidding.

It is not every day that 99 tubas take the stage. One could almost hear the floorboards groan with anticipatory pleasure.

JohnsonThey came to honor their fallen tuba king. Before the concert, at the stage door, there were many large men lumbering with heavy burdens. Admittedly, there is a kind of "Sopranos" look to the players. Wiseguys packing oversize black cases. Made men. They seemed like they might like to spend an occasional afternoon at the track....

"A lot of tuba players look like linemen, okay?" says Terry Cravens, professor of winds and percussion at USC Thornton School of Music, where Johnson also taught. "They're big guys, just like Tommy," who, according to one anecdote, liked to fire up an electric hot-dog griller during a long session to keep himself supplied with wieners during breaks.

When Johnson did Jaws, he was still supporting himself as a junior high school band teacher. Booth writes that when all 99 horns powered up for the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, he could feel the fillings in his teeth rattle. "It had the ring of the Voice of God. Very big." Let's hope the motion picture academy does more than throw Johnson's picture on screen during the obits at next year's Oscars.

Photos: Tubas (Jonathan Alcorn/Washington Post), Johnson (Stephen Oberheu)


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