Denver’s Tuba Christmas: Heavy Metal for the Holidays

I like quirky events—in any part of the world. They highlight lesser-known facets of our culture, reminding me that there’s so much diversity in any given country, state, or city.

A tuba player gets in the spirit of the season during downtown Denver's annual Tuba Christmas concert. About 250 tubas participated in this year's event. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Denver, for example, isn’t just a Broncos-watching, ski-crazy, cowboy-hat-wearing Western metropolis. It’s got plenty of arts and culture: a symphony, opera and ballet companies, jazz clubs, a theatre complex, art galleries.

And then there are the tubas.

Yes, every December, literally hundreds of tubas and their variants serenade downtown Denver with Christmas carols played in the surprisingly mellow tones of these unwieldy low-brass instruments.

In an orchestra, tubas are tucked in the back of the ensemble because, really, no one could see the conductor if the tuba sat farther forward. So it’s satisfying when the tuba get its moment in the spotlight at the annual Tuba Christmas. (Full disclosure: I play bassoon, another orchestral bass instrument, so I have an affinity for tubas. We rarely get showy solos, but a symphony wouldn’t sound the same without us!)

Imagine the delight of the masses this year when a choir of 250 tubas gathered in their Santa hats to play harmonious renditions of “Joy to the World,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Silent Night.”

Trust me, your Christmas is not complete without the bass, baritone, and tenor tones of tubas.

A pair of euphoniums were introduced at the annual Tuba Christmas concert. ©Ken Aikin

This year, Denver’s 40th annual Tuba Christmas concert took place on Winter Solstice at downtown’s Skyline Park (17th & Arapahoe). Featuring tuba players from all over the region—and a few from other states, including New York—Tuba Christmas is one of the most celebrated and longest-running holiday festivities in Colorado.

My husband (who plays trumpet, the highest voice of the brass section) and I elbowed our way through a crowd of around 500 people to get closer to the low-brass ensemble, many of whom wore Tuba Christmas stocking caps and decked out their instrument with seasonal décor. (There is nothing bah-humbug about these tubas!)

The Biggest Concert of the Year

Tuba Christmas was founded by the Harvey Phillips Foundation, which focuses on developing, expanding, and preserving the musical arts—with special attention given to instruments not ordinarily the “object of other support.” (Ahem…this means that despite their size, tubas get overlooked.) The first Tuba Christmas was held in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink in 1974. Today, concerts take place across the globe.

In addition to conducting merry carols—many of us crowd members sang along— retired music professor Bill Clark introduced the metallic musicians with the assistance of Jeanie Schroder, the tuba player in indie-pop group DeVotchka. Playing with 2014’s Tuba Christmas were tuba players from schools and colleges all over the state. They ranged from age 7 to 90, and quite a few multigenerational families performed. Clearly, tuba players enjoy longevity and musical genes.

In addition, we audience members learned that tubas come in all shapes and sizes. There were traditional bass tubas that consist of 18 feet of tubing. There were flashy sousaphones—the ones seen in marching bands with the huge bells that usually spell out the name of a high school mascot. There were euphoniums, sometimes called “tenor tubas,” which look like mini-tubas. A few double-belled euphoniums were present; the joke is they can play duets with themselves.

I believe it’s impossible to listen to a multitude of tubas playing Christmas carols without smiling, singing, and even dancing around. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself! Tuba Christmas always takes place in Denver on the third Sunday of December—snow or shine.

Let heaven and tubas sing!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Denver’s 2014 Tuba Christmas concert attracted tuba, euphonium, and sousaphone players of all ages from all over the country. Onlookers enjoyed singing along. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tuba Christmas was sponsored by Downtown Denver Partnership, Downtown Denver Business Improvement District and Flesher-Hinton Music Company. For information on it and other holiday events Downtown, visit www.downtowndenver.com.

 

 

 

Witnessing the Prehistoric World at Dinosaur National Monument

In one section of the quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument, you can touch the dinosaur bones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

October 15 is National Fossil Day, and there’s no better place to celebrate it than in the massive quarry house in Dinosaur National Monument, located on the state line between northwest Colorado and Utah.

The famous, 150-foot-long quarry wall is embedded with more than 1,500 fossilized dinosaur bones. It’s literally a log jam from an ancient river where dinosaurs drank and hunted…and died.

The quarry is preserved to show the bones located exactly as they were found, and high-tech touch screens allow you to zoom in for a close-up view of a particular bit of skeleton.

Having recently been on a Dino Dig, I can’t imagine how many years it would take for paleontologists to excavate this many fossils. (And work still goes on nearby; a team recently discovered an ichthyosaur, a giant marine reptile.)

As my brother, David, and I entered the quarry hall, there was dino-magic in the air. A little girl let go of her father’s hand and skipped over to the fossil wall. “I’m so excited! I can’t believe these are real dinosaurs,” she said, petting a tibia bone in the okay-to-touch zone.

An observation deck overlooks the massive quarry wall, which is filled with fossilized dinosaur bones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

To help us make sense of the jumbled hodgepodge of bones, which belong to at least seven species of Jurassic-era dinosaurs, David and I used a guide booklet, “What Kind of a Bone Is That?” (It cost us just $1 at the Visitor’s Center.) The two of us reverted to full dino-nerd mode: we spent a couple of hours ID-ing interesting bones, like the sacrum and back plate of Stegosaurus. At the end, we just sit on a bench and speechlessly gaze at the magnificent, intact skull of Camarasaurus, a gigantic plant-eater.

Some of the fossilized bones preserved in Quarry Hall. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Park rangers are always stationed in the quarry hall to answer visitor questions. We talked to ranger Tiffany Small, who pointed out a few more details that we’d missed. She also impressed upon us how unique this view of the past we were witnessing really was. “People come into the hall and cry because they’re so moved that this quarry has been preserved—and that the remains of these prehistoric animals are still here for us to remember.”

When I asked Ranger Small who gets most excited when they come into this hallowed hall of ancient bones, she replied: “Dinosaurs bring out the kid in all of us.”

I guess she could tell David and I were reliving our dino-crazy childhood.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

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This diorama in Quarry Hall shows the skeleton of Allosaurus and a painting of what the animal might have looked like. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Colorado’s Crested Butte Struts Its Fall Foliage

No wonder Colorado's state colors are blue and gold. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Last weekend (September 23–25), Ken and I headed up to our favorite mountain area: Crested Butte, Colorado. We’ve been there for powder days in winter and wildflower fireworks in summer, but autumn had some sizzle in store for us.

I’m usually verbose on these posts, but this time I thought I’d let the photos do the talking. All I can say is that it’s worth the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Boulder to get to this Shangri-la of the Rockies.

Kebler Pass, just above Crested Butte, boasts the largest aspen grove in the state, but in most spots the aspen hadn’t yet started to change colors. There were a few breathtaking vistas on Kebler Pass,  but I think the first week of October should be insanely gorgeous there.

The Castle spires as seen from Ohio Creek Road. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can take Ohio Creek Road from Gunnison to Crested Butte. (You can also get to Ohio Creek Road from Kebler Pass.) One great reward is seeing the Castle Mountains from that  road.

Ken cycled along the road to Gothic, a mountain town above Crested Butte. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

View from Gothic Road. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

The road up to Gothic displayed some pretty impressive foliage. We were among the many cars that kept pulling over to the edge to snap photos.

Aspen flanking Gothic Road near Crested Butte. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

For tips on scenic mountain drives around Crested Butte, visit the Gunnison–Crested Butte Tourism Association.

Laurel Kallenbach, leaf-peeper

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P.S. Leave a comment below reporting on your favorite fall scenery.

Say Goodbye to the Grump during Crested Butte’s Vinotok Festival

The Green Man at the Crested Butte Vinotok festival. Photo courtesy GCBTA.

For years I’ve been hearing about a cool fall festival called Vinotok, held in Crested Butte, Colorado, a quaint and hip mountain town. This year was my chance to enjoy the golden aspen leaves and this annual celebration of the summer harvest and autumn equinox. (Vinotok is a Slovenian word for “fall wine festival.”)

In Europe as well as in America’s Rocky Mountains, Vinotok is a time of village feasting, of forgetting the woes of yesterday, and honoring traditional Eastern European roots.

In the Crested Butte community, Vinotok is a big deal! Ken and I were there for the last two days, but the revelry had been going all week: wreath-making at the farmer’s market; entertainment by local musicians and poets; storytelling events; Liar’s Night, a time for tall tales, whoppers and adventure stories; the crowning of the Green Man, a symbol of virility and the promise of returning spring; and a Community Feast featuring regionally harvested dishes.

 

The Big Night

On Saturday night, the last evening of Vinotok, things really got exciting. All that day, I saw people cutting aspen boughs and riding back to town with them on their bikes. At 5:30 I found out why. Locals dressed as medieval characters paraded down the streets, their heads ringed with fresh flower or leaf wreaths. They carried banners, flags and torches; the shirtless Green Man was decorated in body paint. As they danced down the streets, groups of these characters stopped into restaurants, sang harvest songs, and invited everyone to attend the evening’s festivities.

Revelers parade through Crested Butte's streets. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Even people who weren’t with the official parade wore costumes or wreaths in their hair. The evening was starting to feel like a Renaissance Faire.

At 7:30, as darkness fell, a crowd formed around a stage in front of The Eldo saloon on Crested Butte’s main street. At 8:00, a drama honoring the cycles of nature was enacted on the stage. I couldn’t see much because there were thousands of people gathered, but apparently there were characters such as the Harvest Mother (a very pregnant woman from town); and the Earth Dragon, representing nature, who battled with Sir Hapless, the symbol of technology. There was much talk about restoring balance—an appropriate theme for equinox, a time for planetary equilibrium.

In addition, the Red Lady appeared—a human personification of Mt. Emmons (better known as the Red Lady), the red-rock peak that shelters the town of Crested Butte. The drama’s narrator made an impassioned plea for protecting the Red Lady from a proposed molybdenum mine opposed by many in the community.

Vinotok participants serenade diners at the Ginger Café. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Burn The Grump

Finally, there was a trial for The Grump, a 20-foot-tall effigy and sacrificial scapegoat for the discordance between nature and technology. All of us in the crowd delighted in finding The Grump guilty, and we screamed “Burn The Grump!”

Then thousands of people poured down Elk Avenue to the town crossroads where a huge bonfire was erected. Into the flames went The Grump; he exploded with a few fireworks.

Now here’s the best part: Weeks before this celebration, local kids made “Grump boxes,” which were set around town. Townspeople write down their “grumps,” grievances they want to forget so they can move into the new season with a clean slate. These thoughts are then stuffed inside The Grump. As The Grump goes up in flames, so does everybody’s complaints.

The bonfire that engulfs The Grump. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

We newcomers had a chance to participate too. Ken and I each wrote down our grievances on little pieces of paper. Then Ken handed them to a Fire Maiden who danced close enough to enormous bonfire to throw them in.

I was impressed to see earnest boys jotting down their grumps. One teenage girl asked to borrow a pen so she could write hers. It was great to see all generations participating wholeheartedly in Vinotok. On the other hand, the event attracted a huge number of college-age revelers more interested in heavy drinking than Eastern European heritage. Well, I suppose over-imbibing is a centuries-old tradition as well.

As I felt the heat from the bonfire flames on my cheeks, I watched the sparks spewing from the fire and floating into the sky.

Farewell grumpy thoughts. Hello autumn!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more info on future Vinotok festivals, check the Gunnison–Crested Butte Tourism Association.

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