Longtime Spokane Symphony tubist Leonard Byrne, ‘man of science’ and ‘real artist,’ dies at 70

By Nick Gibson
The Spokesman-Review
January 24, 2024

Leonard Byrne, who served as the Spokane Symphony Orchestra’s principal and only tubist for nearly five decades, died Monday of congestive heart failure in Spokane Valley. He was 70.

Byrne joined the symphony in 1975 while finishing his master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Idaho. Byrne held a unique distinction in the symphony, and in the industry, as one of few members without a degree in music.

As he wrote in his own obituary penned before his death, he had no formal music education aside from a yearlong stint as the tuba player for his high school symphony in Huntsville, Alabama, and private lessons with Robert Spevacek, longtime director of bands at the University of Idaho’s Hampton School of Music. Born in Renton, Washington, in 1953, Byrne attended middle and high school in Huntsville due to his father’s relocation as a Boeing engineer tasked with working on the Saturn V and Apollo missions.

Byrne worked at several tech companies in the area over the years, after settling in Spokane for his first job at Keytronic. He walked out of his last interview with the company just moments before he had to “rush down to the symphony office to sign up for the tuba audition,” he writes in his obituary.

He often had to juggle his working life with his devotion to music before his retirement in 2001, said his wife of 36 years, Helen Byrne.

Byrne’s longtime friend and former Spokane Public Radio host Verne Windham was the principal French horn player when Byrne joined the symphony, and said he remembers Byrne’s audition clearly. Windham said his interest was first piqued before the audition began, when he learned a “man of science” would be auditioning for a tuba position on fairly short notice.

“He simply played so beautifully,” Windham said. “The memorable thing was the character with which he played the tuba solo from Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris.’ That showed us that we had the real artist, the real musician, who would truly grow in the job and deliver everything that’s needed in that important job of being the baseline of the brass section.”

Larry Jess, one of few orchestra members to have stayed with the symphony longer than Byrne’s 48 years, had just taken over his current position as principal trumpeter when Byrne joined. Jess said he was a welcome addition, and the two quickly developed a friendship.

“He was fresh out of college at the University of Idaho, and we had an old retired banker in that role at the time,” Jess said. “Leonard was a breath of fresh air, just a fresh energy.”

Jess said he has seen few musicians with a passion for the craft like Byrne’s over the years. Byrne had an extensive collection of tubas, and the tuba’s low brass predecessors like the Swiss alphorn, the Irish ophicleide or the French serpent – a 16th century coiled bass accompaniment that looks like its namesake.

“It was like a plumbing shop out in his basement,” Jess said of his collection. “He just loved music from the tip of his toes to the top of his head.”

Byrne shared that extensive collection with the community through various workshops, free concerts and seminars at libraries, bus stations and schools to encourage younger generations to hone their musical talent, Windham said.

Windham described Byrne as a historian of the origins of the tuba and low brass instruments, and said it allowed him to fully understand the tuba’s role in a modern orchestra.

“He has really, with great respect, been able to understand where his instrument came from, and also therefore understand how to play the music that was written for the precursors of the tuba that is now played by the tuba player on a tuba,” Windham said. “That’s a neat thing; that he’s been the complete and whole tuba player.”

It was at the symphony that Byrne met Helen Byrne, who still serves as the assistant principal cellist. The couple told The Spokesman-Review in 2020 that they had hardly made eye contact with each other, given their different sections, prior to finding themselves working closely on the orchestra’s contract negotiating committee.

“We were working through a cantankerous negotiation, which happens often enough. I’m the numbers guy, trying to explain management’s position to everybody, staying collected … but you also need some fire,” Leonard Byrne said at the time. “Helen was the fire.”

The couple married on Aug. 16, 1987, after a year of dating, in the backyard of their recently purchased house. Windham, Jess and Chris Cook, who’s played trumpet for the symphony since 1981, all performed at the reception in the couple’s garage. Windham said the orchestra community was “just so thrilled” to see the two end up together.

Helen Byrne said her husband suffered a health scare that likely altered the course of both their lives, and their marriage, two weeks after their wedding day. Byrne was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and was told by doctors he likely would not live past 2000.

After a year of doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, chemo treatments and an experimental bone marrow transplant at Stanford, Byrne’s condition improved and the cancer was eradicated.

“He would say, ‘How can I complain about living to 2024? Because that’s all gravy, I wasn’t supposed to live this long,’ Helen Byrne said.

Helen Byrne said the experience strengthened their relationship and gave the couple a deeper appreciation of each other, after coming face to face with the reality of life’s fragility.

“You don’t end up taking things for granted that you otherwise might take for granted,” Helen Byrne said. “I think we always looked at our marriage, and just the way we related to the world, differently.”

Byrne’s health scares would return later in life, with heart issues popping up for the first time in 2007, and a lung cancer diagnosis a year and a half ago. The latter made it increasingly hard for Byrne to play the instruments he loved, but it did not stop him, Jess said.

Byrne would often use oxygen backstage before his later performances to build up the lung strength to carry the bass line of the brass section.

“This is a determined person,” Jess said. “That’s the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ that he had. He didn’t want to let anyone down. He always had that determination, that spirit, that ‘I’ve got to be there and show up if I can.’ ”

One of Helen Byrne’s favorite memories of her time with her husband came last May, when he joined her and the fellow members of the Spokane String Quartet for a concert at the Bing Crosby Theater. It was the last concert in a season dedicated to playing with family members, and an oddity in the sense that the quartet does not usually play with a brass accompaniment, Helen Byrne said.

The couple decided to have fun with it, playing a piece full of sound effects like rocks tapping together, using the wood of the instruments to make a beat and snapping their fingers.

“It was just sort of a goofy piece, but we had fun with it,” Helen Byrne said. “We really weren’t sure whether it was even going to happen because Leonard had been doing cancer treatment, and he worked really hard to make that program work. Everything he did was, ‘You decide what you want to do, and then you figure out a way to make it work.’ ”

Byrne played his last concert with the orchestra in October, but treated his wife to a private concert a few weeks ago.

“He made all parts of my musical life possible,” Helen Byrne said. “I mean, he made it all better, but he even made it possible. We did a lot of playing together, and it was always one of the most rewarding things to do, was to just feel like you know somebody so well that you can play music together. I’ve lost not only my life partner, but my best musical partner.”

When Byrne was not playing music, which was rarely, he was an advocate for the local artistic community, Windham said. His work negotiating contracts with the symphony to ensure the musicians were properly taken care of has been crucial over the years, and he often contributed to various arts efforts out of his own pocket.

“I’ve seen those crucial times when the music scene needed support in Spokane, and Leonard was always there to do it,” Windham said.

Byrne is credited as being the man to bring the beloved annual TubaChristmas concerts to Spokane, highlighting his giving nature and sense of humor, Windham said. Cook echoed his sentiment.

“I always loved the dichotomy that the guy with one of the biggest, most attention-grabbing instruments on stage, would also be the guy with the gentlest, sweetest, kindest and most modest nature,” Cook said.

Jess, who will sit on the audition board as the symphony looks to fill Byrne’s position in the coming weeks, said it will be hard not to compare the candidates to the beloved, familiar sound of Byrne’s tuba. Helen Byrne agreed.

“I’m always going to be comparing the person I’m listening to what Leonard did; I just won’t be able to help it,” she said. “Just his spirit that he put into what he was playing, because it always had personality, and it always had a gorgeous sound that I really appreciated.”

Helen Byrne is still weighing when she would like to return to the symphony later this year, after taking an extended leave to care for her husband over the last few months. A spokesperson for the symphony said they intend to dedicate a future performance to Byrne’s legacy and years of service.

“I’ve been muttering about retiring for years, but I think I should come back,” Helen Byrne said. “I think Leonard would want me to come back.”