Constance Weldon, pioneering virtuoso of the tuba, dies at 88

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Constance Weldon, pioneering virtuoso of the tuba, dies at 88
In a photo provided by Frost School of Music, Constance Weldon in an undated photo. Weldon, who is believed to be the first woman tubist to earn a position in a major American symphony orchestra, died on Aug. 7, 2020 at an assisted living facility in Southport, N.C. She was 88. Frost School of Music at the University of Miami via The New York Times.

by Julia Carmel

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A lot of people had one question for Constance Weldon, she once recalled, when they saw her lugging a 40-pound bass tuba down the street:

“Why didn’t you take up the piccolo?”

The truth was that she had already tried her hand at the flute — and the trumpet, the trombone and other instruments — but she fell in love with a tuba that her father brought home from a pawnshop.

“I played it and said ‘This is for me,’” Weldon told The Miami Herald in 1981. “On no other instrument I played had the sound come so naturally.”

Weldon, who is believed to be the first woman tubist to earn a position in a major American symphony orchestra, died on Aug. 7 at an assisted living facility in Southport, North Carolina. She was 88.

Her death was confirmed by her longtime friend and caretaker, Linda Broadwell.

Constance Janet Weldon was born on Jan. 25, 1932, in Winter Haven, Florida, to George and Edythe (Roebke) Weldon. The family soon moved to Miami, where her father took a job as a groundskeeper at Vizcaya, an estate built by agricultural machinery magnate James Deering, which later became the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. Her mother worked as a teacher.

Constance began playing various instruments in elementary school, and after graduating from Miami Jackson High School, she decided to study tuba performance at the University of Miami. She auditioned for the Tanglewood Music Festival, and spent her first summer there as a student in 1951.

At the end of that summer she was offered a position in the Rio de Janeiro Symphony, but she turned it down to finish her degree. After graduating with a bachelor’s in music in 1953, she continued studying at the university and received a master’s in education.

In 1954, she returned to Tanglewood. A year later, she began playing with Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops orchestra, apparently making her the first woman tuba player in a major American orchestra. After two seasons touring with the Pops, she performed with the North Carolina Symphony from 1956 to 1957.

Following her time in North Carolina, she moved to Amsterdam on a Fulbright fellowship, studying and playing with Adrian Boorsma, the principal tubist with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. For a time she was the orchestra’s acting principal, and she also performed with the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra.

When she returned to the United States, she joined the Kansas City Philharmonic.

“We’ve got a lot of men auditioning for this,” her friend and former student Jack Weinstein said she was told at that audition. “You can’t just be better; you’re going to have to be much better.”

“Fine with me,” she told him she responded. “Unless I am, I don’t want the job.”

Weinstein noted that it took 50 years for another woman to be appointed to play tuba in a major U.S. orchestra: Carol Jantsch, who has been at the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2006.

After two seasons in Kansas City, Weldon returned to Miami to teach tuba at her alma mater while moonlighting with the Miami Philharmonic. In 1960 she formed a tuba ensemble, at the time one of the few groups of its kind at any university.

In 1972 she became the assistant dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Miami’s School of Music, now the Frost School of Music. She held that position until her retirement in 1991.

Many of the next generations’ most accomplished tuba players were her students. They included Mike Roylance, the current principal tuba with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; James Jenkins, principal with the Jacksonville Symphony; and Sam Pilafian, the virtuoso who founded the influential Empire Brass quintet.

In a field dominated by men, Weldon sometimes worried about how audiences would receive her.

“If you have a stereotype of a tuba player — big, fat and huge — then Connie and I don’t fit it,” Mary Difulco, one of Weldon’s students, said in 1981.

In 1991, Weldon was given the University of Miami’s Distinguished Alumna Award, and she was later declared the university’s Distinguished Woman of the Year. She was also given a lifetime achievement award by the International Tuba and Euphonium Association in 2004.

Once she retired, she split her time between Lake Placid, Florida, and Beech Mountain, North Carolina, finally settling in Southport around 2004. No immediate family members survive.

Even as Weldon became a mainstay in her field, performing for new audiences could still be nerve-racking.

“When you go on a new gig, you have to warm up the crowd,” she told The Miami Herald in 1981. “They sit there with a look that says, ‘We’re not going to like you.’ You wonder if they are going to start throwing things at you or what.”

“We’re trying to live down an image that when everyone looks at a tuba, they laugh,” she said in the same interview. “There is nothing that you can’t play on the tuba.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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