WEEKEND: Tuba impresario to be featured Saturday at Port Angeles Symphony concerts

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The teen hated the tuba.

But freshman Chris Olka wanted so badly to be in the high school band that he agreed to take on the hulking thing.

This was Titusville, Fla., and Olka was from a working-class family of five boys. And after the tuba was thrust upon him by a school band director, Olka learned to like it — and see what it could lead to.

Olka, who will join the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra in concert this Saturday, got his first paying gig as a tuba player with a show band at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

By now, he was a senior in high school and began the part of his career that would pay his way toward a bachelor's degree in music. Olka went on to play with several Disney World bands, including Tubafours, the world's only full-time professional tuba quartet.

After working his way through Central Florida University, Olka auditioned for the Juilliard School in New York City — and not only got in, but also won a scholarship to the famed institution.

“It was thrilling,” said Olka, who earned a master's degree at Juilliard.

Next, Olka auditioned for the Seattle Symphony, and again he was welcomed; he's played and traveled with the orchestra since 1999. And for years now, Adam Stern, conductor of orchestras in Seattle and Port Angeles, has wanted Olka to come west for a visit. Stern, who directs the Port Angeles Symphony, had in mind Ralph Vaughan Williams' Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra — and wanted Olka, and only Olka, to be the soloist.

But the Port Angeles Symphony's concert season has never quite aligned with Olka's schedule. Along with his job as principal tuba player with the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera, Olka is on the music faculty at the University of Washington.

At last, though, Olka has found a time to come to the Port Angeles High School Performing Arts Center, 304 E. Park Ave., for the symphony's first performances of 2014.

These two concerts — at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday — are titled “Vista to the Universe.” Stern has filled them with drama: Bach's Chaconne in d and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, “Winter Dreams,” along with the tuba and orchestra concerto from Vaughan Williams.

Ironically, the composer didn't write this concerto for the tuba.

“It was composed for the harmonica,” said Olka, but when it was presented to a harmonica soloist, that musician “snubbed the piece.” So Vaughan Williams went back in and massaged his music, altering it to fit the huge horn.

The work that emerged is one that provides Olka with a rare experience: standing in front of the orchestra to play a long solo. Typically tuba players are at the rear. The tuba is “the big, bumbling buffoon” of the symphony, Olka joked, adding that the instrument only weighs about 20 pounds, but it's a cumbersome 20.

Tuba players need big lung capacity, of course, and Olka noted that many end their professional careers around age 60. At 41, he's reaching a personal crescendo.

“I feel like I'm playing the best I've ever played,” he said, even as he strives to meet the challenges the music poses.

Olka and the Port Angeles Symphony are extending a particular invitation to youngsters and their families this season: those 16 and younger will be admitted free to Saturday's concert if accompanied by an adult. Otherwise, reserved seats at the evening concert are $30 for adults and $20 for seniors and students; general admission are $15 and $10. As always, Stern will give a brief talk on the evening's music at 6:40 p.m.

Alternatively, music lovers can attend the symphony's 10 a.m. dress rehearsal, when admission is $5 per person or $10 per family. During this performance, Stern gives the orchestra feedback; the mood is more casual than at the evening concert.

For reserved seats and information about these and future Port Angeles Symphony events, phone the Symphony office at 360-457-5579 or visit www.PortAngelesSymphony.org.

General seating tickets are also on sale at Port Book and News, 104 E. First St., Port Angeles, and at two Sequim locations: The Good Book/Joyful Noise Music Center, 108 W. Washington St., and Sequim Village Glass, 761 Carlsborg Road.

Last modified: January 30. 2014 8:15PM
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