In new venue, TubaChristmas remembers woman who brought show to Austin
Published 10:31 am Monday, December 7, 2015
Playing for Pitzen
Tuba music filled the Historic Paramount Theatre Saturday as Merry TubaChristmas spent its first year in a new location. But the event was also missing a staple player.
The sixth annual Merry TubaChristmas took place Saturday, but original Austin organizer Val Pitzen — who also played her instrument every year — passed away July 30 after battling cancer.
“It’s different,” Austin High School band director Brad Mariska said. “It was so fun to see her here last year. She had gone through so many struggles, and for her to be here last year. Of course, no one expected it to be her last. We all hoped that she would be here again this year, but we will definitely be thinking of her and playing for her.”
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This was Mariska’s fourth year directing, along with Dennis Conroy from Hayfield and Ross Reishus from Blooming Prairie.
TubaChristmas brings together low brass instruments — like tuba, sousaphone, baritone or euphonium players — to get their day playing the melody.
“This is one of the great traditions of Christmas that’s a little unique, a little off the wall,” Mariska said. “And there’s lots of things to worry about at the holiday season, and there’s lots of bad stuff happening in our world, and this is something where everyone for an hour can just be present in the moment and feel the Christmas spirit.”
Many of the performers have spent years behind the music stands, playing Christmas carols with the audience members singing along. For Bev Vangsness, 81, getting out her baritone for this each year to see the audience get into the Christmas spirit has been fun.
“Sometimes you don’t hear all the traditional Christmas carols, especially played by a low brass band,” she said.
She has played every year since the start and said it was different not having Pitzen there, who she taught in school and attended church with.
“She’d be very happy [that it’s still going],” Vangsness said. “Something she wanted to get going and she worked hard at it.”
Although one staple was missing, there were many new players to fill in this year. Ryan Stencel, 15, got his baritone out to play during his first year with Merry TubaChristmas.
“It feels exciting,” he said. “I just wanted to do it, it sounded cool.”
He hoped the audience was filled with Christmas joy, but also hoped people would learn a little more about the versatility low brass instruments have.
“That any instrument can play in any kind of category,” he said.
Royce Helmbrecht, 67, simply hoped the audience would sing along with the Christmas carols, as they have every year since the start when he joined.
“I hope they just have a great time singing,” he said. “That’s the fun part of the whole thing is that they’re singing with us.”
He said he doesn’t get many opportunities to play his bass tuba anymore, so this is one event he gets to break it out each year.
Merry TubaChristmas began in 1974 at the Ice Rink Stage of New York City’s Rockefeller Center, where more than 300 tuba, baritone and euphonium players gathered to honor the memory of world-renowned tuba player and Iowa native William J. Bell, who was born on Christmas day, 1902. TubaChristmas was created by Harvey Phillips to honor Bell, and the traditional carols were specially arranged for the first TubaChristmas performance by American composer Alec Wilder, who died on Christmas Eve in 1980.
Pitzen, who used to work with the Austin Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, organized the first performance in Austin in 2010 after playing at a TubaChristmas performance in Mason City.