picture of a horn

Our Wagner Tuba Adventure

Part I: We Had a Dream. We Had an Awesome Dream.

Wagner Tuba Pictures

(1 of 11) Helen Read, Marti Walker, Bruce McRae, Bill Karstens

Coolest. Thing. Ever.

For years, we have talked about trying to get our hands on a set of Wagner tubas. The Wagner tuba, if you're not familiar with it, is a weird and wonderful, rarely played instrument that was commissioned by the 19th century composer Richard Wagner for the use in his operas. Wagner wanted an instrument with a tonal quality midway between that of a horn and a tuba, and thus the Wagner tuba was born. The Wagner tuba is notoriously tricky to play, even compared with horn, which is not exactly a walk in the park. None of us except Bill had ever laid hands on one.

Anyway, we wanted to -- somehow -- get hold of a set of Wagner tubas so that the four of us could play them as a section. The Wagner tuba is just about the coolest instrument ever invented, and it would be so cool if we could ever get to play them. We talked about it from time to time, but it was always one of those vague "Wouldn't it be great if..." things that we envisioned happening some day in the far future. At one point we even looked into purchasing a set, but unfortunately if you have to ask how much the Wagner tubas cost, you cannot afford them.

So then in around 2004 or 2005, the four of us became involved with the Green Mountain Mahler Festival, a group founded by Daniel Weiss that meets a few times a year to play works by Mahler and other great romantic composers. After playing a Mahler symphony or two, Bill and Helen began began lobbying for Bruckner's 7th Symphony, which is a great work, and oh, by the way, it calls for four Wagner tubas. This was still in the realm of "Wouldn't it be great, someday..." (I mean, we don't have a set of Wagner tubas), but we kept mentioning it to Dan pretty much every time we saw him. If we could ever do it, it would be the coolest thing ever.

Well! In January, 2008, Dan Weiss sent out an announcement that the Green Mountain Mahler Festival would be playing Bruckner's 7th in mid-April, and that he hoped there would be a full complement of Wagner tubas. Still having no idea how we would pull it off, we immediately e-mailed Dan and told him the four of us would cover the Wagner tuba parts. After shooting our mouths off, we were now going to have to somehow get our hands on a set of Wagner tubas. Luckily, Bill is a former professional player who still has numerous contacts in the horn world (in fact, Bill is one of those people who knows everyone). So Bill got on the phone and sent out some e-mails, and in short order -- to our absolute astonishment -- had arranged for us to borrow a set of Wagner tubas from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bill drove down to Boston in mid-March to pick them up, so that we would have them for a month to practice on before the Bruckner gig.

Next page: Now we have to play the things.