Euphonium Euphoria

"Double-belled euphoniums and big bassoons . . ."

It's a lyric from "76 Trombones" in The Music Man, and if you've heard of Leslie Van Zee's favorite musical instrument, there's a good chance that's where you've heard of it. Van Zee uses only a single bell, not a double, but she plays that variation of the tuba known as the euphonium. She's a . . . what? A euphonist? Euphoniast?

"Euphoniumist," she says matter-of-factly. It's not a word that slips off the tongue euphoniously.

Van Zee and I are in the sunlit dining room of Sahara, the pleasant Middle Eastern cafe just south of University on Mill Avenue in Tempe. It's walking distance from the ASU School of Music, where Van Zee is in the third year of a master's program -- she's slated to finish in May 2001. Like a lot of her fellow music students, she eats here a lot.

Today, alas, she hasn't come prepared. "I had cookies and punch over at the music building, so I'm really not that hungry," she says. She decides to order something from the appetizer menu -- vegetable sunbusek.

It sounds good, so I order the same, and a hummus for us to split. Then the smiling, soft-spoken twentysomething starts telling me about the horn on which her graduate studies focus. She may not have brought her appetite, but she's brought her passion for the euphonium.

Before long, I ask the Big Question: What does one do with a graduate degree in euphonium performance? Van Zee's perpetual smile turns pained, long-suffering.

"See, I hate that question. I'll tell you why. I always feel like people are challenging you to prove that your choice is a valid choice, that you know what you're doing. It's not really anybody's business."

She's plainly heard the question before. Euphonium, you see, is a specialty instrument, used almost exclusively in band music. There's no seat for euphonium in a symphony orchestra. Beethoven and Mozart never wrote anything for euphonium, because the instrument didn't exist until the mid-1800s -- it was one of the family of "Sax Horns" invented by the Belgian Adolphe Sax, much better known for inventing the instrument that Charlie Parker and Bill Clinton had some success with.

"Basically, I'm a music major," says Van Zee. "I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to be able to be a professional musician, but other than the fact that I can't really try out for an orchestra, I don't think my position is that much worse off than any other instrument."

Besides, though Van Zee speaks admiringly of British euphonium soloist Steven Mead ("he's the god of euphonium"), she has no desire for a stuffy career of recitals at schools and conferences, anyway. She wants nothing less than to play her instrument in popular venues, and has begun to do so regularly, at the "open mike" at Joe's Grotto in Phoenix.

"Euphonium had kind of a golden age around the turn of the century, here and abroad, like the era when John Philip Sousa had his band and was in charge of the Marine Band," she explains. "In the couple decades following the Civil War, and before the first World War, band music was . . . the shit, and euphonium was . . . the bomb."

Her eyes gleam with optimism at the prospect of these salad days returning. For an instant, she looks to me like a 20th-century musical Don Quixote, tilting at a windmill made of synthesizers and electric guitars with a euphonium instead of a lance.

The food arrives, and we dig in. It's delicious, but after a bite or two, we see that it isn't what we ordered. We'd asked for the vegetable version of the sunbusek pastry, but the triangle of golden phyllo dough we've been brought is filled, instead, with tasty, velvety spinach. Besides, it's not quite as big a serving as I or Van Zee, cookies and punch notwithstanding, had hoped for. The waiter apologizes, and I order a single vegetable sunbusek for us to split as a supplement.

How, I ask her, does one decide to be a . . . you know, a euphonium player? "I don't think you do," she answers. "I haven't met very many people who say, 'I wanna play that instrument.'"

The daughter of a Motorola engineer and a junior high school nurse, Van Zee grew up in the Metrocenter area. It was at Cortez High School that the euphonium picked her. "I was in band, playing trumpet, and my band director switched me to euphonium when I got braces. When you play the trumpet, you use more pressure on your lips. Since then, though, I've met plenty of people who played [trumpet] with braces and didn't have any problem."

She took to the horn. "It has a very dark, open sound, as far as brass instruments go. Some brass instruments have a very narrow, piercing, kind of directed sound, like a trumpet or a trombone. Euphonium has a kind of wide, more ambient sound."

Besides, the very obscurity of it appealed to her. "I realized that there was an advantage in playing something nobody else played." Asked if there isn't also a disadvantage, she laughs. "Well, the advantage was obvious earlier than the disadvantage. Like, I switched in December, and in February I made second chair in Regional Honor Band, 'cause only four people tried out. If I played trumpet or something, I probably wouldn't have made it at all."

The vegetable sunbusek arrives, and we tear into it. The sweet, starchy filling of potatoes, peas, carrots and spices is too hot for me; it burns my mouth. I swig some iced tea too abruptly, and it dribbles out of my mouth and onto the front of my shirt.

I apologize profusely, but I've forgotten who's sitting with me. She shrugs indulgently, and says, "It's spit." For a brass-section veteran like Leslie Van Zee, it's no big deal.

Later, outside Sahara, Van Zee breaks out her gleaming, silvery-white euphonium and plays me a few bars of an upcoming recital piece -- a modern Japanese work for euphonium and piano. The sound is truly lovely; deep and mellow, bluesy and . . . well, there's no other word for it. It's hip.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead