Virtuoso showed that tubas aren't just for polkas

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 12:00 AM

Harvey G. Phillips, 80, a tuba virtuoso who led a nationwide crusade to elevate his instrument's reputation as a galumphing staple of polka and marching bands and organized "Octubafest" and "TubaChristmas" concerts to showcase the bass horn's majesty and grace, died Oct. 20 at his home in Bloomington, Ind. He had Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Phillips was considered one of the finest tubists in history. He played with such mastery that composers often tried to outfox him with exceedingly complex solo passages. They never managed to faze the burly musician widely known as the "Paganini of the tuba."

As a young man, Mr. Phillips traveled the country playing tuba with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a job that required a daunting level of precision. He later performed with some of the most prestigious groups in the country, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and the New York City Ballet orchestra.

He commissioned many pieces to increase the tuba concerto repertoire and played dozens of times at Carnegie Hall.

With an evangelical passion for his instrument, he was known at times to bristle when anyone suggested that the tuba was limited in its musical possibilities. "Would Heifetz have been any less a genius if he had played the tuba?" he once asked a reporter.

Critics attributed Mr. Phillips's considerable musical achievements to his seemingly tireless work ethic. He was known to practice in the back seat of the car while his wife drove him to recitals and through the night when he got home while his children were sleeping.

Offering proof of the tuba's supple sound, and his own gentle touch, Mr. Phillips once said that during these midnight sessions his children never stirred from their beds.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Phillips started his Octubafest tradition as a way to help student musicians socialize at the University of Indiana, where he was a music professor for 23 years. The event eventually became a nationwide tour for tubists, with an annual convention at his TubaRanch in Bloomington that attracted thousands of participants.

In 1974, Mr. Phillips decided to gather more than 200 tuba players for a Christmas celebration at New York's Rockefeller Center.

The event attracted widespread media attention and public interest. Scores watched the huge collaboration of tubists deftly maneuver through soft, blanket-warm renditions of "Silent Night," "Joy to the World" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful," arranged by his friend Alec Wilder.

TubaChristmas was a smash, and Mr. Phillips returned for many years dressed in a red Santa suit for the occasion.

The point of his concerts, Mr. Phillips said, was to display the tuba as a noble instrument and to dispel an image problem that was only magnified when the instrument was placed to the wrong set of lips.

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