Musician Spotlight: Aaron McCalla

Aaron McCalla, a native of Dallas, TX, has performed around the world in orchestras as a soloist, as a chamber musician, and in rock bands. In 2022 he became Principal Tuba of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Read on as Aaron talks to us about his exciting upcoming performances with the San Diego Symphony, his musical journey so far and his life off stage. 

1. Tell us about your musical journey and how you came to play with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. 

My musical journey started out in my hometown of Duncanville, Texas in the sixth-grade band. The school I attended had an amazing, nationally recognized music program. I feel so fortunate to have been raised in a town that put so much support into the arts. 

My first two years of college were at Southern Methodist University, where I studied with Principal Tuba of the Dallas Symphony, Matt Good. I then transferred to the Juilliard School in New York City where I studied with Principal Tuba of the New York Philharmonic, Warren Deck. While at school, I won my first job in the Colorado Symphony, where I spent three years. I then moved to Boston to finish my music degree at New England Conservatory with Principal Tuba of the Boston Symphony, Mike Roylance where I had so many wonderful opportunities to play with the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops. I am thankful to have had these three amazing men as mentors in my life. After graduating, I spent the summer of 2005 at Tanglewood Music Center and then left Massachusetts for Florida to join the Naples Philharmonic where I spent 17 wonderful years.  

 In the summer of 2021, the San Diego Symphony called me to substitute for a few concerts including the inaugural opening gala of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park™. From the very beginning I have absolutely loved playing in the San Diego Symphony. The quality of music making, and the professionalism of the people made a big impression on me. I also felt very at home because I was already acquainted with some of the musicians here like the Symphony’s current bass trombonist, Kyle Mendiguchia, who was a former colleague of mine at the Naples Philharmonic. In 2022, I was lucky to win the position of Principal Tuba with the San Diego Symphony 

2. Do you have a favorite San Diego Symphony Orchestra memory?

There have been so many highlights, from the opening night of The Rady Shell, the Jacobs Masterworks Series, the Movies in Concert Series, to playing with popular acts like Cypress Hill and beyond.  My favorite memory, without a doubt, was the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall concert this past fall. The focus, the energy, the musicianship; it was all so inspiring. Getting to perform with my colleagues in such a world class venue gave me an even greater appreciation for how lucky I am to be a part of this amazing organization. 

3. Talk to us about your musical pursuits outside of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Do you teach? Play in any bands or other organizations?

One of my passions is teaching and music education. I previously taught tuba at Florida Gulf Coast University for many years. And when I won my position here in the San Diego Symphony, I was lucky enough to be offered the tuba teaching position at San Diego State University. I am happy to be able to continue teaching at the collegiate level.  

Like most musicians in the orchestra, I too have other music gigs. I regularly play in a few brass groups and at a few churches around town. During my summers in Naples, Florida, I traveled with a couple of rock bands and even had the opportunity to start a couple of bands of my own! One, named LNE, was based in Antigua and developed an enthusiastic fan base. The other, Kate Priestly Band, started in Guatemala and ultimately found a home in Austin, Texas. I absolutely love the energy of playing the bass lines of a band on my tuba! 

4. When you are not performing with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, how do you spend your free time?

It has been so much fun getting to know San Diego and the surrounding areas. There is so much to do and see. In our free time you might find my family and I exploring the museums of Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, hanging out at the beach, at dog parks, going to sporting events, and just getting to know all the various neighborhoods that make up San Diego. Or you might simply find us at home enjoying pizza and watching a movie! We also love to travel and experience new things - we started our two sons early with traveling, and now they are pros. 

I have also been a fan of sports for as long as I can remember.  I coached my one son’s little league team this past year and will be coaching his flag football team this spring! When I was living in Naples, I also played for 15 years in the county soccer league. I hope to start back up and play here in San Diego one day.  

5. What are you looking forward to most with the San Diego Symphony in 2024?

The number one thing I am looking forward to next season is returning to Jacobs Music Center, full-time, week after week. It will be so great to be back in our indoor home making wonderful music. I am also excited to test out the new renovations that will allow my colleagues and me to give the audiences the world-class musical experience they deserve! 

 6. The San Diego Symphony Orchestra's performance of the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre this month celebrates 20 years of partnership with The San Diego Opera. The tuba plays a prominent part in setting the magical and mythical scene with bombastic and powerful passages. What will be your own artistic interpretation when you play this piece with the Symphony

Playing the tuba in any part of The Ring Cycle is an exhilarating experience. You get to inhabit the body of a dragon, you get to help lead the charge of the Valkyries, and you get to set the tonal and harmonic landscape for so many amazing scenes. The contrabass tuba, the largest tuba I use with the symphony, was first introduced to opera by Wagner for The Ring Cycle. Previously, the tuba was smaller with a lighter sound. 

I first performed Act I of Die Walküre at Tanglewood Music Center, almost 20 years ago. A fun fact about the performance is that some of my current San Diego Symphony colleagues were on stage with me also performing - current Assistant Principal Horn, Darby Hinshaw and Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster. It is the greatest thing about music and orchestras. You get to have decades-long relationships with great friends on and off stage 

 Aaron and Family

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