American Composers Orchestra This Friday at Zankel Hall
Los Angeles Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall

Tubist Carol Jantsch Discusses Life in the Philadelphia Orchestra and Bringing a New Concerto to the Instrument

by Michael Cirigliano II


Photo credit: Ryan Donnell

Winning a principal seat in one of the nation’s top orchestras is a Herculean effort in today’s orchestral market, but landing such a coveted role while you’re still working on your bachelor’s degree? It’s the musical equivalent of winning Powerball. 

But that’s exactly what Carol Jantsch did in 2006 when she won the Principal Tuba seat in the Philadelphia Orchestra while still a junior at the University of Michigan, becoming not only the youngest member of the group, but also the first female tubist in a major symphony orchestra.

Ms. Jantsch moves to the front of the orchestra Friday night, performing the New York premiere of Michael Daugherty’s latest concerto, Reflections on the Mississippi, with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall. Ahead of her New York City solo debut, Feast of Music had the chance to sit down with Carol and discuss her love of the underrated instrument, grooming the next generation of musicians, and the collaborative process involved in bringing a new work to the concerto repertoire.

1 Carol Jantsch, Alice Tully Hall, Feast of Music

Photo credit: Sue Burrough

FoM: Your early musical education began with the piano before moving to the euphonium and tuba. It’s obviously not too common for a child’s musical studies to take them directly from the piano to low brass instruments, so what was it about the euphonium that initially attracted you away from the piano at such a young age? 

CJ: Well, I actually kept up with the piano through high school, so it was more along the lines of adding the euphonium when I was nine years old. I was going to the Interlochen Arts Academy as a junior camper, and my first summer there I was involved in an Instrument Exploration program, where I was looking to add a second instrument. I just saw the euphonium, said “What’s that?” and that was it.

FoM: So how old were you when you made your official transition to the tuba?

CJ: I started dabbling in both around the seventh grade.

FoM: Now it’s obviously very well known that you won your seat with the Philadelphia Orchestra while you were still pursuing your bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. Where there any specific aspects within the U of M program that helped you to build your confidence, allowing you to transition from a collegiate ensemble directly into one of the country’s finest orchestras?

CJ: Obviously I went to the U of M because of the tuba instructor there, Fritz Kaenzig, but I also have the fondest of memories of my band director, Michael Haithcock. So, when you ask about being prepared for ensemble playing, it comes from the level of playing found within his Symphony Band. The level is really high and the expectation is that you’re coming to each and every rehearsal prepared.

It’s obviously the same way with Philadelphia—you don’t show up to the first rehearsal to learn your part; rather, you’re putting it together and learning the conductor’s interpretation. I definitely had experience meeting the highest level of expectations with [Haithcock], which made the ensemble incredibly interesting to work with. We worked on interpretations and balance, rather than “Hey, that’s an A-flat there.”

FoM: So it was Haithcock’s professionalism that helped you to bridge the transition?

CJ: Definitely. I played with that ensemble all eight semesters, as opposed to only playing with the university’s orchestra for two semesters. The Symphony Band was just incredible.

FoM: And was there anything that U of M did in terms of audition training or mock auditions that helped you to really put together the strategy you needed to land such a coveted role in today’s competitive and heavily saturated audition landscape?

CJ: Yeah, Fritz Kaenzig regularly held mock auditions during studio class, so I received a lot of audition experience thanks to those regular events. Also, there was a time while I was in school when all of these great tuba spots were opening up—almost a dozen seats within Top 20 orchestras seemed to open within four years. So I had a lot of opportunities to take a lot of auditions, taking real ones internationally, in addition to my studio’s auditions.

FoM: And what kind of advice do you have for orchestral musicians graduating this year, in terms of preparing strategy and setting priorities—especially when there are multiple auditions within a relatively short timeframe?

CJ: I believe maintaining your own integrity is incredibly important. You want to enter an audition playing music the way you think it should go. I definitely discourage the game plan that some people take, thinking, “Well, what does this conductor or player want to hear?” It should be more of setting a plan and following through on that always.

FoM: So be truthful to yourself and your own interpretation, rather than playing an endless guessing game of what others want to hear…

CJ: Exactly. The worst thing you could do is enter an audition, not play the way you would choose to play, not get accepted, and be left thinking, “I wish I had played the way I wanted to…maybe things might have been different.” That’s always a shame.

FoM: Moving over to your life with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I would definitely like to get your take on the current orchestral scene. So many orchestras, including your own, have been making the papers, and not always for the most positive of reasons. Even the Top Five orchestras are having management problems and financial woes, and I wanted to get your perspective as a principal player—how do those turbulent negotiations and behind-the-scene actions affect the mindset of the musicians as they take the stage each and every night? Is there a mutual camaraderie that takes center stage, ensuring that the music is the primary focus, no matter what may have happened in a boardroom that day?

CJ: Wow, that is quite a question! [Laughs.] I do try to involve myself in orchestra politics as little as possible, but at the end of the day, my colleagues and I show up on stage, we play our hearts out every night and we maintain the integrity that we will continue to do just that, no matter what. I’m always inspired by my colleagues—that they will go out there every night and give a good show. I feel so lucky to be a part of such a dedicated group of musicians.

FoM: That’s fantastic. And what do you think orchestras, on a national scale, can do to strengthen relationships with their audiences, as well as music-education initiatives? What is the Philadelphia Orchestra doing to curate the next generation of audiences?

CJ: I definitely feel that we’re still fleshing out the strategy for that, since we’re between management. We’ve definitely built a strong community-partnership program, getting younger people involved in classical music and making sure that our programs are of the highest quality. We don’t need throwaway kiddie concerts, but rather an investment in our community at large. We’re definitely still exploring all of our options at this point.

FoM: And on the teaching front, you’re currently the tuba instructor at Temple University, the Curtis Institute, and Yale University. What kind of career perspective are you instilling in your students to better prepare them for the musical world after they leave the safety of academia?

CJ: I definitely encourage my students to keep an open mind about what they want to do professionally, and always look to diversify. Maintaining a career in music these days is all about finding your niche—sometimes even single-handedly creating a career for yourself. That takes a lot of different skills than what a performance degree alone can give you. Thinking outside of the box is incredibly important.

FoM: So let’s discuss Reflections on the Mississippi—give me an idea of how the commission came together: were you part of the commissioning or the selection process determining the composer?

CJ: Temple University actually contacted Michael Daugherty, specifically asking for a concerto. I’m very lucky that he noticed my name on the faculty roster and remembered me from my time at Michigan, since I was involved in a recording of an all-Daugherty album with the Symphony Band during my junior year. I was super flattered and excited to have them call me for this commission, since its relatively unheard-of for a tuba player.

FoM: And what was the gestation process like once everyone was on board and the composing began on Michael’s end?

CJ: I was actually able to meet with Michael in Ann Arbor about four times over the past year. He’s a really collaborative composer, and when working on a concerto, he wants to learn everything he can about the instrument at hand; he wants everything to make sense and be completely idiomatic.

He worked with me, as well as Fritz Kaenzig and his current roster of students, so there was always someone available to play through new passages to make sure everything sounded good. In that respect, Michael’s attention to detail has really paid off—it is a piece that makes sense for the instrument and sounds really great. It was amazing to be a part of the evolution of ideas, getting to see them refined as time went on.

FoM: Were there certain aspects of the tuba’s voice or technique that you wanted to make sure were incorporated into the new work? Any neglected attributes of the instrument that you feel composers should bring to light in composing future works for the tuba?

CJ: I think what Michael and I were most excited about was showing how the tuba can carry a really beautiful melody; you just don’t associate tuba with melody very often. It’s definitely something that’s lacking in the repertoire, and ends up working very well when used. The first and third movements have slow, beautiful moments that are just so much fun to play and work so well on the instrument. We’re both definitely very pleased with how that turned out.

FoM: You obviously work very rigorously as an orchestral performer. Is there anything that changes in your performance mindset when preparing for a solo appearance?

CJ: It’s definitely completely different playing as a soloist, and it’s fun to be the one making the interpretive choices. I get to make more of the executive decisions, which forces me to have a clearer grasp of exactly what I want to get out of a particular moment or passage.

FoM: Given the physicality of the instrument, is there anything that you do in terms of leading a healthy lifestyle that helps you to better prepare for a demanding performance?

CJ: Certainly being in great physical condition is going to make life easier for any wind player; it’s important to have your endurance levels remain high. I like to stay active, and have been getting a lot more involved with yoga over the past year and a half—the balance, awareness, and mindfulness is incredibly useful. 

FoM: Is there anything in particular that you would like the audience in New York to take away from the program?

CJ: I think it’s a really fun piece, and I would love for the audience to enjoy what they’re listening to. It was definitely a focus of the composition to write something that people wanted to hear and would be able to connect with. I would love to change the general perception that the tuba can’t do anything cool, and for the audience to simply like what they’re hearing.

Ms. Jantsch and the Temple University Symphony Orchestra perform Reflections on the Mississippi, alongside works of Rossini and Shostakovich, this Friday night at Alice Tully Hall. Tickets can be purchased at Lincoln Center's site.

2 Carol Jantsch, Alice Tully Hall, Feast of Music

Photo credit: Sue Burrough