Spotlight on Christopher Olka, Principal Tuba
Chris Olka officially began his tenure as Principal Tuba of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops in September 2016. Before he started, however, he joined three of his new Cincinnati colleagues (Concertmaster Timothy Lees, Principal Cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn and Principal Bass Owen Lee) as part of the All-Star Orchestra for PBS, an ensemble composed of top musicians from various orchestras around the country. “I have been a member of that group since its inception, owing a huge debt of gratitude to Maestro Schwarz [the founder], as it was he that appointed me to my first full-time position in Seattle,” said Chris.
Originally from Knoxville, TN, Chris spent the last 17 years as Principal Tuba of the Seattle Symphony and Opera Orchestras. He’s also performed as a guest principal tuba with the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic and New Jersey Symphony. A graduate of the University of Central Florida (B.M.) and the Juilliard School (M.M.), his “office” for seven years happened to be “the most magical place on earth,” as a full-time musician for the Walt Disney World Company Theme parks (1989–1996).
He got his musical start, however, as a saxophone player for six years before he entered high school. But during the first week of freshman year, he approached his band director and told him he wanted to play sax in the band. His band director informed him right away that he would in fact not be playing the sax. All of the other tuba players had graduated, and since Chris was the biggest guy in the band, the director told him that if he wanted to be in the band he would have to play tuba.
“He handed me a music book, a tuba and a mouth piece and sent me into the practice room and told me not to come out until I could play the tuba parts of the pieces we would be playing that year in the band,” said Chris. “I didn’t choose to play the tuba—it was chosen for me. But it worked out well.”
Chris and his wife, Kimberly, have enjoyed exploring Cincinnati since they moved here. “My wife and I are really coming to love this town, and our favorite haunt thus far seems to be a tie between Taft’s Alehouse....get the Tri-Tip salad! Or Jungle Jim’s World Market...what an incredible place to shop for food!”
Chris performs at Walt Disney World
When he’s not playing or practicing tuba, Chris spends time in the air. As a licensed private pilot, he’s logged over 250 hours thus far. “It’s by far my proudest non-musical achievement, and I’m looking forward to earning my instrument rating along with beginning Aerobatic instruction next year,” he said. He and Kimberly have also formed non-profit organizations to work in the community. Harmony For Heroes brings music to local VA hospitals, while the second, currently unnamed, organization presents local brass players of all ages and skill levels an annual conference to attend masterclasses, recitals and group performances.
(l-r) Principal Tuba Chris Olka, Principal Bass Owen Lee, Concertmaster Timothy Lees and Principal Cello Ilya Finkelshteyn during the All-Star Orchestra performance in summer 2016
As a tuba player, Chris has a special affinity for Prokofiev’s music. “He obviously loved the instrument and wrote some of the best parts in all of the repertoire for it.” That said, he owes a lot to Mahler. “His music is what made me want to pursue an orchestral career,” he said. “My musical motivation and inspiration lately have come from my new friends and colleagues in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Hearing the level of artistry, hard work and dedication that they bring to the stage every day is refreshing and truly inspirational,” he said