Tuba virtuoso: you probably didn’t know there was such a thing unless you’ve heard Velvet Brown play, and then you’ll never forget. In addition to being a sought-after chamber musician, recording artist, and soloist, Velvet is Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at Penn State and the internationally-acclaimed Peabody Conservatory, an active performer with major symphony orchestras around the world, and the newest member of the Orvieto Musica faculty.
Her work in the field of brass performance has also made her a leading clinician and pedagogue, and she’s not just changing the sounds the next generation of tubists and their audiences hear.
She’s changing their imaginations.
As an advocate for new music, a frequent commissioner of concerti and chamber works for her instrument, and an active composer herself, Velvet is leading a revolution in technique and tonality to elevate the tuba to the highest levels of excellence and artistry. It’s an exciting opportunity for festival goers and emerging brass performers alike, and it’s why Executive and Artistic Director Kim Walker personally selected her to build Orvieto Musica’s TubaFest program for tuba and euphonium from the ground up.
We sat down with Velvet at her home in State College, PA to catch up on her life, work, and what she has in store for OM ‘24.
OM: How did you develop such a diverse and exceptional career?
Velvet: I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, and started playing the same way most kids do—in my 4th grade band. However, my hometown had something very special: the Annapolis Brass Quintet. They started in the early 70s, and at the time they were one of the only full-time brass quintets in the country. Along with groups like the New York Brass Quintet and the Canadian Brass, they were giving groundbreaking chamber music performances that completely revolutionized what being a brass professional could mean.
The frenzy of chamber music carried me to Boston University to study with the Empire Brass, and I absolutely absorbed their masterclasses and performances. Later in my career I had the privilege of studying with Roger Bobo, the former principal tuba of the LA Philharmonic and a full-time soloist in his own right. By the time I finished my degrees, I’d gone from a kid playing tuba parts in school band to dreaming about being a touring soloist hauling a very heavy case!
OM: Tell us how you’re carrying on the legacy of your teachers today.
Velvet: I tell all my students there’s no single path to success—you can create your own career. There are very few orchestral and Marine band auditions out there offering a traditional full-time performing job, and I want to challenge them to explore all the different ways of realizing a wonderful artistic life.
Participating in diverse and exciting chamber music opportunities is a huge part of unlocking a bigger vision, and it elevates every aspect of a tubist’s technical and artistic skill sets. The fact is, being the tuba player in a brass quintet means you have to be an outstanding instrumentalist—absolutely outstanding. You’re part soloist, part ensemble expert, and it challenges you on the deepest levels as a performer and a person.
Also, whether I’m directing the Peabody Brass Ensemble or coaching a tuba and saxophone duet at Penn State, every chamber music situation is an opportunity to help young people find new ways of being a performer, and outside of that I encourage them to pursue and create opportunities that inspire them. There’s a lot of new music being written all the time for tuba and tuba ensembles; you can find ways to express yourself in any combination of instruments that intrigues you. Your imagination is the only obstacle!
OM: Are you ready for your first year in Orvieto?
Velvet: I am incredibly excited to be returning to Italy. I was a Fulbright Scholar in Italy for 16 months, and for the next 6 years I spent a lot of time performing and teaching in the European artistic community. A while back I taught at a festival in Riva di Garda near Verona, and it was a life-changing experience for my students. I want to capture that same transformative artistic energy this summer in Orvieto.
OM: You’re a champion of the tuba repertoire and a composer yourself—do you program a lot of contemporary pieces for your ensembles?
Velvet: I like to give my students a variety of experiences. I play a lot of the greatest hits myself, of course, but I also perform with eclectic groups like Gravity tuba jazz ensemble and MOJATUBA, which celebrates African dance and music. The tuba world is getting bigger every day, and future performers will need to have a wider palette than ever before.
There’s also been a huge explosion in tuba literature in recent decades, and it just keeps getting better. Whether we’re doing contemporary work for just two or three players or an arrangement of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony for a large ensemble, I want the participants and their audiences at Orvieto to get a taste of the rich variety of styles available to us.
OM: You’re incredibly passionate about your instrument—what continues to inspire you?
Velvet: You know, I’ve always been enthusiastic about the tuba, and it’s such a meaningful part of my identity as both an artist and a human being. All my life I’ve been trying to show as many people as I can that this instrument isn’t just the “oom” of the “oom pa pas”. It’s a wonderful, rich, diverse, and virtuosic vehicle.
After a recent performance, an audience member who was probably in her 80s came up and said “I never knew a tuba player could play as you did.” That’s what I’m trying to do on every level in my career and for the next generation of performers I have the privilege to mentor and guide through this journey. I want to inspire them to enlighten their listeners through their enthusiasm and dedication, and embrace the joy of sharing music as their life’s work.
OM: We couldn’t be more excited to have you join us this year! Any final thoughts for us?
Velvet: I am just thrilled to be able to share this experience with the faculty and participants of Orvieto Musica, and I’m honored to have been invited by Kim Walker. She probably doesn’t know this, but she has been a huge inspiration for a very, very long time. When I first entered the recording business, I remember looking at Kim’s extraordinary body of work saying “Oh my goodness! Here’s this woman— this solo artist—releasing all these wonderful recordings! If she can do all this, maybe I can too!”
She was a mentor for me even though she never knew it, and I’m so proud that I’m able to finally make the connection with her in Orvieto after all this time.
Orvieto Musica is thrilled to welcome Velvet Brown for her inaugural season with the festival! Click here to learn more about Velvet and her career, and find out more about OM’s Tuba Euphonium Fest. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram, and experience her recordings with Crystal Records.