Breaking the brass ceiling Philly's rare orchestral find: A female tubist.

Posted: February 26, 2006

When he was here recently leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, Simon Rattle was so smitten with a young substitute musician in the back row that he arranged to have her audition with his Berlin Philharmonic.

Sir Simon, it turns out, was too late.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has hired Carol Jantsch for its vacant tuba spot, making her the only - and possibly the first - female tuba player in a major full-time American orchestra.

Jantsch won the orchestra's audition late Wednesday night, beating out 194 other hopefuls.

Before she can break through the brass ceiling in the male-dominated realm of tuba-playing, however, she has a little unfinished business back in Ann Arbor, Mich. Jantsch, a soft-spoken woman whose fair-complexioned face has something of a Vermeer quality about it, is still in school. After winning the job here, she will return to the University of Michigan, where she is expected to graduate in April.

She's only 20 years old, making her the youngest member of the Philadelphia Orchestra - less than a quarter of the age of the orchestra's oldest musician.

All of this - Jantsch's unusual age, the gender break-through, her universally admired musicianship - adds up to a historic moment for the orchestra.

"I think it means . . . the rejuvenation of the orchestra in the best way," music director Christoph Eschenbach said yesterday. "That she is a young woman on that very un-woman-like instrument is a fact that is really extraordinary, and that she is so young and accomplished is a miracle almost."

This is not only Jantsch's first orchestra job. It also is her first job of any kind. The post pays well over $100,000 a year, though orchestra administrators declined to say specifically what her salary might be.

Is she surprised at landing such a plum job?

"I thought I had a chance," said Jantsch, who has yet to negotiate her contract in Philadelphia but expects no obstacles. "This is probably the best job I could ever hope for."

This best job almost didn't happen.

Jantsch points out that orchestras have only one tuba player, and some of those spots take decades to turn over. Her predecessor in Philadelphia, Paul Krzywicki, held the job for three decades, from 1972 until 2005.

With no professional experience on her resume, Jantsch says, the first response from the Philadelphia Orchestra was a rejection letter. It discouraged her from even auditioning. Players of her age do land big-orchestra jobs, but more often they spend their 20s in smaller orchestras before working their way up to the more prestigious ensembles of New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Then, Jantsch sent a CD of her playing to Bar Harbor Brass Week, a summer brass workshop whose music director is Blair Bollinger, who happens to be bass trombonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and chair of the tuba audition committee.

Bollinger heard her CD and invited her to audition in Philadelphia.

It probably helped that Jantsch was playing the first movement of Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto - on tuba. It is a fistful of notes for a nimble violinist, but absurdly tough on tuba.

"I listened and I thought, 'Wow, this is good. This is really good.' It was some of the most amazing tuba playing I've ever heard. It was technically clean and musically eloquent," Bollinger said.

He passed the recording on to other members of the audition committee.

"I think they found it amusing, if nothing else," Jantsch said.

In the last few weeks, in her tryout at the Rattle concerts, Jantsch has already forged an impressive presence for herself. Her sound is solid and resonant but blends sensitively with other sections of the orchestra.

"It seems to me she was just born with the instrument, she's so at ease with it," Eschenbach said. "She plays it like a flute."

Soft-spoken, even mild and deferential in conversation, Jantsch, who grew up in Ohio, is the daughter of a doctor and a voice teacher. She started on piano at age 6, moved to euphonium at 9, and settled on tuba at 12.

What does she like about the tuba? "I guess that I'm the only one and I can do my own thing, that I have a role all by myself."

She comes across as laid-back. She almost acts as if this job of a lifetime had just landed in her lap. But she says she's quite ambitious, and her teachers agree.

"She has a real interesting mixture of personality traits. She's sensitive - and very determined," said Fritz A. Kaenzig, her University of Michigan tuba teacher.

Jantsch acknowledges - though modestly - her pioneering role: "It feels good to be the first something, I guess," she said.

Few female tubists have had success in orchestras. Constance Weldon played for a time with the Kansas City Philharmonic and the Miami Philharmonic (both now defunct) and did a stint as acting principal tuba of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.

A fair number of woman play tuba today, including Velvet Brown, a Penn State professor of tuba and euphonium, who calls Jantsch's win in Philadelphia a "wonderful occurrence."

But none, except for Jantsch, occupies a chair in a full-time orchestra, say a number of tuba players.

"It has been truly a man's world," Kaenzig said. "The real reason probably is the demand of lung capacity." Women don't generally have as large a lung capacity as men, he said. "Carol is an exception. She has 4.7 liters [she has measured it on medical equipment], the same as I do, and that's just enough to get the job done. She is so determined musically she gets the air in any way she can."

If brass players have a reputation for macho banter and a certain amount of antics, Jantsch should have no trouble keeping up. She once won a tuba-throwing contest at a tuba conference in Finland, casting an old instrument into a lake, landing first prize in the women's division.

Jantsch tried out in Philadelphia for three weeks in the fall and three more weeks this month, and will probably join the orchestra for concerts in the summer and then full time in the fall.

As for Berlin, it turns out the match wasn't meant to be.

After Rattle made contact with Berlin and the audition materials arrived, Jantsch noticed a rather important detail.

The Berlin Philharmonic requires a tuba player who plays a B-flat tuba.

And Jantsch?

"I play C."

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|