Dec. 22, 2006
NOTE: This is part of a series of feature articles on some of the remarkable people who contribute to the arts programs at the University of Iowa.
Larson, Creator Of Remarkable Arrangements, Still Enjoys Playing With Tubas
If the sound of gloved hands clapping reminds you of the "Chipmunk Song" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," you can thank Eric Larson.
A University of Iowa alumnus in music education, Larson is the creative mind behind many of the most popular arrangements played by the UI Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble for its annual holiday concert on the UI Pentacrest, given every year on the last day of fall classes. More than 20 years after graduation, Larson still returns to play in the concert.
Falling in December, the concert is invariably played in the cold and greeted by the unmistakable sound of gloved applause.
Now approaching its 35th anniversary (or more; no one knows for sure), the annual alfresco concert is a much-loved university tradition. It invariably attracts an audience of 100 or more, as well as local TV reporters and newspaper photographers, even when it has been played amid snow flurries, or frigid temperatures have forced members of the group indoors to un-freeze their valves. Conductor John Manning -- the tuba/euphonium professor in the UI School of Music -- dresses as Santa Claus, leads the ensemble with a giant candy-striped cane and passes out candy after the concert. Ensemble members customarily decorate their instruments, and some wear costumes of their own.
Larson said he began making the arrangements "on a whim" when he was an undergraduate, between 1978 and 1983. Most were made from recordings.
"I enjoyed taking these songs and transforming them to the tubas," he said. "People don't think tubas and euphoniums play melodies, since they are usually heard as the backup parts in the band. I liked to show that tubas CAN play melodies."
"He brought me a couple of arrangements every year," said Robert Yeats, the retired former director of the Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble who was Larson's euphonium teacher. "After he graduated, he would call me up and ask what new pieces I would like that year." Eventually Larson made 20 or more arrangements, including some of the most popular pieces on the concert. In addition to "The Chipmunk Song" and "Mr. Grinch," the Collegium Tubum (as the ensemble is sometimes known) often plays Larson's arrangements of "Frosty the Snowman," "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland" and other holiday favorites.
"He's just got a gift for making these arrangements," Yeats said. "He understands the instruments and how the ensemble works. With all low instruments, you can't get lush harmonies or complicated accompaniments. He knows that outside, an instrument can break down-you have to have everything covered by more than one player.
"People who are a lot more famous have made some arrangements that are not nearly as good as Eric's, because they're too complicated. He knows how to avoid that. And he has a quiet sense of humor, which is why his arrangements are so successful. There's always something amusing or entertaining going on."
Larson, who still lives in Iowa City, keeps coming back to play euphonium in the Holiday Concert. He has played just about year since he graduated, good weather and bad.
You might wonder why anyone would want to stand in the cold holding 12 pounds of cold metal to their chest. "Well, I'm here in town," Larson said. "I enjoy rejoining the group, playing all of the songs every year."
Just like audiences like to stand in the cold to hear them. Larson, through his arrangements, keeps the performers and listeners together every year, enduring the weather to find a little bit of Christmas warmth on the Pentacrest.
The School of Music is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. You may visit the UI School of Music web site at http://www.uiowa.edu/~music/.
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