That time the tuba player made an Air Force officer cry

Mar 14, 2019-The Virginian Pilot

With a particular concert in Virginia Beach this weekend, several threads emerge: the Royal Engineers, the tuba, Facebook, Pittsburgh. And there is one force that that weaves them together: friendship.

Daniel Boothe, music director of Symphonicity, is welcoming a friend he hasn’t seen in years to perform with the group on Sunday: James Gourlay, one of the few people in the world who make a living playing the tuba. Gourlay is the artistic and general director of River City Brass in Pittsburgh.

The men have a lot in common, but they have one story that made me want to write about them.

In 2014, Boothe was an Air Force officer and music conductor, and was deployed to Qatar just a few weeks after his second child was born. Gourlay was leading the River City Brass in military appreciation concerts and lined up his friend Boothe, now about three months into his assignment, to appear at a show through a live feed and even conduct a little.

The audience could see Boothe on a large video screen over the stage. But there was another large video screen beside it. After some banter, Gourlay tweaked things so that he could surprise Boothe by showing him who was on the other screen — his wife and two children.

“Hi, Daddy!” said his older daughter. Boothe teared up.

“James managed to get my wife and children live on the screen, even with our newest baby, who I had to leave for deployment right after she was born,” Boothe said. “The entire thing was just — wow.”

“It was a very emotional moment,” Gourlay said. “There was, literally, not a dry eye in the house.”

“My audience still talks about it,” he said. Boothe added, during a lively, three-way conference call interview this week, “My kids and I still like to sit down and watch it.” (He and his wife now have four children.)

“I’m still impressed,” Gourlay said, “that we pulled it off just with Facetime on our iPhones.”

They even did a little trick where it seemed that Gourlay passed his baton to Booth so the officer could lead the band in Pittsburgh from Qatar, where it was around 3 a.m.

Gourlay joked his friend: “It looked as though you were going to drop off the screen.”

“It was a crazy idea to have you conduct from a screen,” Gourlay said.

And it was a beautiful idea to connect a soldier overseas to his family.

Such gestures from the arts world to the military world are important, Boothe said. “It meant a lot to us that this was happening. That someone of his stature was taking notice of us.”

He added that it’s clear to folks in the military that Gourlay’s interest is genuine.

The native of Scotland said his father cleared landmines in World War II with the British Army’s Royal Engineers. His older brother Andrew was in the Royal Engineers, too, from age 14 until retiring in his 50s.

When Gourlay joined the River City Brass band, he learned that they regularly perform the Armed Services Salute song, a medley of the traditional songs for each branch of the U.S. military. It’s a tradition for audience members from the military to stand during their branches’ song.

“No one told me that people would stand up during the tune,” Gourlay said. “And when I saw the people standing, I was very moved by it.”

Gourlay and his wife became American citizens in October, and he said they proudly wore their “I voted” stickers in November.

Boothe and Gourlay met in Pittsburgh in 2012, after Boothe filled in at the last minute to conduct River City Brass. “We clicked and became friends,” Boothe said.

The “archetypal Facebook friends,” as Gourlay joked, will finally see each other again this weekend, to the benefit of those who like good music, and a good story.

Dan Duke, 757-446-2545,