Matt Murphy (center) and Seth Bodine (right) play in the bass section of the University of Alaska Anchorage Wind Ensemble. The group will make its annual stop in Kenai on Friday at Kenai Central High School.

Matt Murphy (center) and Seth Bodine (right) play in the bass section of the University of Alaska Anchorage Wind Ensemble. The group will make its annual stop in Kenai on Friday at Kenai Central High School.

All about that bass: University Wind Ensemble concert highlights tuba

Most people don’t see the tuba as a lead instrument. But on Friday, the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Wind Ensemble plans to put the big brass horn in the spotlight.

The ensemble will make its 11th annual stop at Kenai Central High School on Friday. The group, composed of woodwind instruments and brass, is mostly music students from the university, but some are students from other departments and members of the community, according to Dr. Mark Wolbers, the ensemble’s conductor.

“If you think about orchestras, most of their repertoire is going to be 19th, 18th century pieces,” Wolbers said. “Their mainstay is Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. When you do wind band conducting, you tend to be conducting more modern works that were composed within the last 100 years.”

The featured piece, “Tuba Concerto,” was written 61 years ago by British composer Edward Gregson and runs a hefty 19 minutes, Wolbers said. Because the tuba is a newer instrument — invented in the mid-19th century and still largely a support instrument — there are few pieces in the tuba’s repertoire. Gregson’s piece was considered the first concerto for tuba, Wolbers said.

The music he selected for the ensemble, which tours Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula in the fall, centers around a connection to British band music. Brass bands were common in the U.K. throughout the 20th century, forming the centerpiece for many communities. Some still exist today, Wolbers said.

“Even though our music comes from around the world — we have a piece from New Zealand — it was originally arranged for British brass band, and we have an Australian composer,” Wolbers said. “And a piece by Vaughan Williams … it all has the former British Empire kind of relationship.”

The band will play selections from the works of Peter Graham, Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as an American composer, Eric Whitacre. The tuba concerto will be anchored by Jeffrey Manley, an adjunct professor at UAA and former U.S. Air Force musician.

Manley has toured the U.S. and most of Alaska, he said — including every single school in the Bering Strait School District in northern Alaska.

“In all those villages, the school is the central place,” Manley said. “It’s where everything happens. When the plane lands and you’re not from there, suddenly you become a minor celebrity. The whole village would turn out.”

The tuba has been a lifelong commitment, Manley said. The fifth of six siblings, he said he grew up watching his older sisters and brothers enter the band class and select instruments and knew the tuba was for him. He marched for five years with the Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corp. in Chicago and served 20 years as an Air Force musician, playing in Tacoma, Washington and eventually in Anchorage.

He primarily works at Alaska Music & Sound: Home of the Horn Doctor in Anchorage but took an adjunct position teaching applied music for the tuba at UAA. That was when Wolbers approached him with the idea of playing “Tuba Concerto” with the wind ensemble.

“A lot of people don’t think of the tuba as a solo instrument, but we deserve the recognition,” Manley said.

Wolbers said the music scene has grown in Alaska since he began teaching at UAA in 1992. His first band class included six students; today, he teaches classes with ensembles of up to 40, he said. Even the community members come from other trades and play music on the side, he said.

“I think (the arts scene) has matured quite a bit,” Wolbers said. “You see that everywhere, even down on the peninsula. You think about the last 20 years, what’s happened with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra. It’s quite different than what it was when I came here.”

The concert will be held at the Kenai Central High School Henderson Auditorium from noon to 1 p.m. on Friday. Admission is free.


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