AT THE JUST-CONCLUDED Cabrillo Festival the brass player who most regularly caught one’s eye was Forrest Byram, especially when installing or removing the outsized mute from his tuba. In their quest for more timbral colors, many composers of contemporary orchestral music enlarge their palette by calling for mutes and other implements that change the instruments’ natural sound. Byram gets more of that action at Cabrillo than at most of his other orchestra jobs. And he has a lot of them.
The San Francisco resident is principal tuba player for the Monterey Symphony, Santa Cruz Symphony, Modesto Symphony, California Symphony and Fremont Symphony, and can sometimes be found seated in the pit for the SF Opera and SF Ballet orchestras. (He served 15 years on the Monterey Symphony board of directors as a musicians’ representative.) He has also played when called for with the San Francisco Symphony. He has played in films and commercials. And he is the bass voice of the San Francisco Brass Quintet, and, in Monterey County, the Pinnacles Brass Quintet.
That sounds like a lot of work, but Byram could use more. After all, not every orchestra concert requires a tuba; in any given season only a few programs call for one.
The Illinois native began playing tuba at the age of eight, in a public school music program. “If it were not for that program I wouldn’t be a musician today,” he says. Because of that, he has taken special pleasure in visiting schools and introducing youngsters to classical music. But why the tuba? “I’m not entirely sure,” he responds. “I started with the horn. But the biggest kid could carry the tuba. Maybe I played horn wretchedly. It was probably the ‘big kid’ thing.”
At Northwestern University he studied with Arnold Jacobs, for 44 years the principal tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After graduating Byram continued his education in the Chicago Symphony’s training orchestra, and performed with the Chicago Symphony on many occasions over a two-year period. Then he was hired as principal tuba with the Tucson Symphony and his professional career was launched. He has played with the orchestras in Monterey and Santa Cruz since 1986 and with the Cabrillo Festival since 1990, starting in the season just before conductor Marin Alsop was engaged as music director.
The big mute he uses—called a straight mute—is the tuba’s counterpart to what trumpet and trombone players use. Byram recalls a time in 1998 when Marin Alsop conducted Frank Zappa’s The Perfect Stranger, which called for a wok to be used as a mute, the way a plunger is used on a trumpet.“I tried using a wok but it was so heavy I wound up buying a gold pan, like the ‘49ers used during the Gold Rush.” (What he remembers most during a concert in 2012 was a piece by Osvaldo Golijov that called for a set of Yemenite shofars, those long, twisting horns of the kudu antelope of Eastern Africa, and their “most hideous stink.”) Byram’s favorite concert instrument, weighing about 30 pounds, is a Holton tuba, “a copy of my teacher’s York.” It was one of two made for Jacobs. “Sometimes you’ll see me play a smaller E-flat Besson.” He also occasionally uses a euphonium.
Byram has similar opinions about the Cabrillo Festival as many of his fellow orchestra members there. “It’s a challenge, often hard, very different from regular symphonic repertoire that I’ve worked on for years,” he says. “This stuff we have to learn fast and it’s so complex that it takes a lot of rehearsal time before you start to see the whole thing. I look at the string players, who have so many notes, to make sense of it, to really start to understand.”
And he does listen. He found the opening night piece Haunted Topography “really powerful.” Composed by David T. Little, it represented a map of Vietnam. Years after a mother’s son was killed in the war she was unable to grieve until she was shown a map and the exact location of his death. “Listening to it in rehearsal I thought it didn’t go far enough, long enough, to let everything ring. But in the performance I could see it was wonderfully balanced.” He also admired Ana Lara’s Angeles de llama y hielo on the festival’s last program, especially the second movement which did not include the tuba.
Before the performance of Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto at San Juan in 1994, he was outside of the mission church before the concert began. “I heard this crash that made me think the risers had collapsed. It was just the trombone section rehearsing,” he laughs.
In the coming symphonic seasons Byram is looking forward to playing in Mahler’s First Symphony and HK Gruber’s Frankenstein with the Santa Cruz Symphony, as well as Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony where he has only 14 notes to play in the second movement. The Monterey Symphony season includes Wagner, and Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration on the first program, and later Ives’ Second Symphony, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, and Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat, as well as works by Rimsky Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Byram will also play the “New World” and Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in Modesto this coming season.
“I try to be an artist,” Byram says. “And I always advise my students to set a goal to be an artist.” Then, with a laugh, he adds “But you also have to remember that you play the tuba.”
Top photo by rr jones; lower photo by Fiona Frye