The Japanese folk song "Sakura" is a delicate little wisp of pentatonic melody, with a text that reflects on the blossoming of the cherry tree, the brevity and fragility of its beauty. The music suits the subject perfectly, hinting at more than it says and ending quietly almost before it has begun. It is the last thing in the world you would expect to hear played by a tuba ensemble--never mind enjoying it.
But last night in the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre, 14 tubas and related instruments (baritone horns and euphoniums) managed to convey the essential fragility of that melody without losing any of their own robust charm. The Tokyo Bari-Tuba Ensemble, conducted by So-ichi Konagaya, focused on music of Japan, including three modern compositions, for most of the program, but the ensemble also managed to pay tribute to Handel and Bach (who never heard of the tuba) as well as John Philip Sousa, who loved the instrument so much that he invented a new variety that bears his own name--the sousaphone.
The program got off to a slightly rough start with the overture to Handel's "Royal Fireworks" showing some need for warming up; ensemble playing was not always precise and a few notes were distinctly flat. But the playing improved significantly for the rest of the program and rose to heights of considerable virtuosity in the "Illusion" of music director Konagaya, the suite for four tubas of Ko-zo Masuda and the Divertimentino of Masa-Aki Hayakawa--brilliant, sometimes moody pieces specially adapted for the strengths of this instrument.
Sousa did not get his due until the encores, which were four in number, after a standing ovation by an audience of fellow tuba players. The third encore was "The Stars and Stripes Forever" in a version that was sometimes hilarious, notably when the famous and very nimble piccolo solo was played on a tuba. The last encore, the "Washington Post" march, also impressed some members of the audience as funny, judging by the laughter that broke out after several rude notes played with excessive vibrato in the deepest bass available. It may be all right to do that sort of thing to the "Stars and Stripes," but human decency must impose some kind of limits.