After a record-breaking 36 years with Utah Symphony, tuba player retiring on a high (low) note

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary Ofenloch is retiring after 36 years as the principal tuba player for the Utah Symphony. He is the longest tenured brass principal player in the symphony's history.

Gary Ofenloch didn’t get through 36 years of playing the tuba for the Utah Symphony without learning a few tricks.

For example, he keeps his main instrument, a contrabass tuba, at his home studio in the Avenues for practice, and keeps an identical one at Abravanel Hall for rehearsals and performance.

“You extend your career exponentially, because these things are heavy,” said Ofenloch. The tuba and its case together weigh 80 pounds, and “that really does a job on your back after a while, schlepping tubas around.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary Ofenloch is retiring after 36 years as the principal tuba player for the Utah Symphony. He is the longest tenured brass player in the symphony's history.

Having two contrabass tubas is also an investment, since a top-of-the-line model costs around $30,000. That’s the same amount a violinist might pay for the most expensive bows, Ofenloch said. It’s what the rest of us would pay for a new Toyota or Chevrolet.

At 68, and after playing the tuba professionally since he was 17, Ofenloch is retiring as principal tuba player for the Utah Symphony. He is the longest-serving principal brass player in the symphony’s history, at 36 years, having played for conductors Joseph Silverstein, Keith Lockhart and Thierry Fischer.

Ofenloch’s last performances with the Utah Symphony are scheduled to be Friday and Saturday, May 24 and 25, during the symphony’s season finale. The program will feature Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the “Titan,” as well as Haydn’s Symphony No. 9 and Schnittke’s “Moz-Art à la Haydn.” Violinist and associate concertmaster Kathryn Eberle and principal second violinist Claude Halter will solo; Fischer will conduct.

Ofenloch was 10 years old in 1961, growing up in a Chicago suburb, when his school started a band. The man renting instruments set up all the horns on red felt, and played each one to demonstrate their sounds. Ofenloch said he was interested in the saxophone, but his dad balked at the $2.50 monthly rental (more than $21 in 2019 dollars) — more than his working-class family could afford.

His dad talked to the rental guy, who Ofenloch remembers saying, “‘I’ll tell you what, we’ll give him the tuba for nothing because nobody wants to play it.’ So my dad looks over at me and he says, ‘You’re playing the tuba, kid.’” Ofenloch added: “It was love at first blow.”

A year later, in the fifth grade, Ofenloch’s class got to go hear the Chicago Symphony, which cemented his love for the tuba. “Little did I know I was hearing arguably the greatest orchestral tuba player at the time,” he said. That was Arnold Jacobs, who became Ofenloch’s teacher and mentor in 1968 — the year Ofenloch got his first professional tuba job, with the Chicago Civic Orchestra, the training arm of the Chicago Symphony. He was 17.

Ofenloch’s early career included touring with Henry Mancini and performing regularly with the Boston Pops. While attending the New England Conservatory of Music, he co-founded a ragtime group that once played at the White House for President Gerald Ford.

At one Boston Pops show in 1985, the conductor, the legendary movie composer John Williams, tasked Ofenloch with a solo on Williams’ score for “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi;” specifically, the theme music for Jabba the Hutt. Even though Ofenloch had never seen a “Star Wars” movie (and still hasn’t), he nailed the solo.

Williams autographed a photo of the sluglike Jabba as a thank-you note. When he saw the picture of Jabba, Ofenloch said, his first thought was, “I guess I didn’t have to play it so pretty.”

Ofenloch landed at the Utah Symphony in 1983. “I was Joseph Silverstein’s first hire,” he said. “It was a full-time job, and I wanted to play in a full-time orchestra. I was not that in love with living in a big city. In a way Utah was the perfect job. It’s a full-time, 52-week-season orchestra, but it’s not in New York, it’s not in Detroit.”

Three years after he came to Utah, Ofenloch almost left. Jacobs, his mentor, retired in 1986 from both the Chicago Symphony and a teaching job at Northwestern, and it was Ofenloch’s dream to succeed him in both. He landed the Northwestern job for a one-year trial, and at the end of that year told Jacobs he was torn between teaching and performing.

“He said, ‘You’re an orchestral player. Go back to the Utah Symphony.’ And I didn’t need to look any further. I came back here right after that,” Ofenloch said.

Ofenloch has watched the symphony change greatly over his tenure, particularly in the 10 years since Fischer became musical director.

“Silverstein and Lockhart just never fired anybody. They worked with what they had,” Ofenloch said. “[Fischer] has been a director of change. Half the orchestra’s new since he’s been here. ... Fischer really wanted to improve the product. The orchestra’s really playing at the highest level it’s ever played, certainly in my 36 years.”

Ofenloch is watching, from a bit of a distance, the symphony’s process of replacing him. (The tuba and the harp are the only instruments where there’s only one of them in the orchestra.)

The symphony went through applications from 176 tubists, including some of his students. Three finalists performed for a selection committee under a process similar to TV’s “The Voice,” where the players are behind a screen so those choosing are only hearing the players’ music. One winner was picked, and was given a one-week trial run with the symphony — and was vetoed by Fischer. So the process started over.

“It’s really hard to win an orchestra job,” Ofenloch said. “I have friends in Boston who I went to school with who are still waiting for their lucky break. One of my closest friends, actually my roommate in college, got into the Boston Symphony when he was 18.”

When he retires, Ofenloch will have more time to spend with his wife, Debbie, who retired as an occupational therapist at Granite School District a couple of years ago. He also aims to stay active in music, continuing his job as an adjunct professor at the University of Utah. But the transition to not playing regularly will be strange.

“I still stay up at night, thinking, ‘What’s life going to be like?’” he said. “I’m down here [in my studio] at 6:30 every morning, practicing my scales and long tones, trying to make my sound right before I go to work. ... Not having to get up that early, in fact, is going to be nice.”

Not that he hasn’t enjoyed his musical life in Utah. “If someone told me that 36 years later, I’d be sitting in Salt Lake City still, I probably wouldn’t have believed them, but I’m glad I did,” Ofenloch said. “Other than the lousy air, we really love it here.”


Utah Symphony’s season finale

The Utah Symphony finishes its 2018-19 season with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Thierry Fischer conducts.

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

When • Friday and Saturday, May 24-25, at 7:30 p.m.

Also on the program • Haydn’s Symphony No. 9 and Schnittke’s “Moz-Art à la Haydn.”

Soloists • Violinist and associate concertmaster Kathryn Eberle and principal second violinist Claude Halter.

Tickets • From $15 to $85, at artsaltlake.org.

Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.