If it's Thanksgiving, it must be time for another musical pun from Miles Hoffman. Last year, the music commentator chewed on musical leftovers. Before that it was symphonic turkeys. He's even demonstrated the art of plucking. This year, Hoffman beats a path into the studio with — what else? — drumsticks.
Hoffman joins Renee Montagne for a holiday review of drums, triangles and other percussive instruments.
"The first drums that were used in Western orchestras were the timpani, or the kettle drums," Hoffman says. They first appeared in Europe in the 1400s, and they had been imported from (drum roll, please....) Turkey, where they had been used in cavalry bands.
When the Philadelphia Orchestra opens its season next week, Carol Jantsch, 21, will be anchoring its brass section. She's the orchestra's youngest member and the first woman to hold a principal tuba chair in one of the nation's top orchestras.
Rejected at first as too inexperienced, Jantsch beat out 194 other tubists to win the job last winter, when she was a senior at the University of Michigan. She was given an audition after an orchestra official heard a tape of her playing.
Actually, it's fitting that Jantsch is so young because the tuba, invented in the 1830s, is the youngest of the brass instruments.
Renee Montagne discusses the history of the tuba with music commentator Miles Hoffman.
"There are different sizes of tubas, but they all are basically just a big brass tube," Hoffman says. If you straightened one out, it could be up to 32 feet long.
And they're as heavy as they look; most orchestral tubas weigh 25 to 35 pounds.
"Sometimes it actually sounds heavy, and it's meant to," Hoffman says. In Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrouchka, for example, the tuba is used to convey the image of a big dancing bear.
It's a misconception that a tuba's weight prevents more women from playing the instrument, Hoffman says.
"When you're holding the tuba and playing it, it's the chair that you're sitting on that supports the instrument," he says. "So holding it up is not the issue.
"But it requires an enormous amount of air. And frankly it's just another one of these preconceptions, like the old notion that tuba players — men or women — couldn't play fast, that the instrument couldn't be made to sound virtuosic because the instrument itself was just too unwieldy."
But that perception is changing. "More and more people treat the tuba now as an instrument where anything is possible," Hoffman says. And more women are studying the tuba in conservatories around the country.
Helen Kotas: Horn PioneerHear excerpts of recordings from the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring Kotas.
The organ has been described, along with the clock, as the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution. Mozart called it the king of instruments.
The largest concert-hall organ in the United States — all 32 tons of it — recently made its debut at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
"Millions of people hear the organ every weekend ... in church, but how the thing works does remain kind of mysterious," music commentator Miles Hoffman says.