CSO Brass concert, Dec. 19, 2013. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Fifty years ago, a 19-year-old music education major at a small liberal arts college strolled into an auditorium in Quincy, Ill. He was required by both his music history and music theory professors to be there for a concert, and he had no idea of what was in store. He had studied piano in grade school and trombone in high school, and despite growing up in Chicago, had never heard a live performance by a symphony orchestra. That was why he was there: to hear the CSO, which was performing in Quincy.

For the musicians of the CSO and Louis Lane, the conductor of that concert, the evening most likely was quickly forgotten. But for that college sophomore, the experience was transformative. The program was not unusual: music by Mozart, Bartók, Schuller and Sibelius’ Third Symphony.

I was that 19-year-old, and it was the Sibelius that forever changed me. On the spot, I decided to become an orchestral trombonist. Immediately after the concert, I ran backstage and introduced myself to the principal trombone, Jay Friedman. Incredibly enthusiastic about music, he gave me the best advice an aspiring instrumentalist could ever receive: study with a good teacher, practice hard and listen to as much orchestral music as possible.

The following summer, I went home to Chicago and began studies with the CSO’s bass trombonist Edward Kleinhammer. I stayed in Chicago for the next two years, studying with Kleinhammer, playing in the Civic Orchestra, and without exception, hearing every CSO program.

The trumpet section performs at last year's CSO Brass concert. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

The trumpet section performs at last year’s CSO Brass concert. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

I was never disappointed, especially in the brass playing. Even though the CSO would not make its first international tour until 1971, the CSO brass section had an international reputation. Fritz Reiner’s readings of Richard Strauss’ tone poems were widely circulated among brass aficionados the world over. If you listen to Reiner’s 1954 recording of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, you’ll hear brass playing that’s downright thrilling — fresh, exciting and not at all dated, even though six decades have elapsed since these sounds were committed to vinyl. Clearly, the CSO Brass has a long tradition of stellar performance. That hallmark sound will be showcased when the CSO Brass presents its annual holiday concert Dec. 18 at Symphony Center.

Kleinhammer, who played in the CSO from 1940 until his retirement in 1985, often said, “In Chicago, we reach for the sky.” That reach-for-the-sky attitude, which really means seeking the perfect sound quality, balance and intonation on every note regardless of length or dynamic level, is another CSO Brass tradition. Its origins can be traced to New York City, where in the late 1940s, a 26-year-old Minnesota native auditioned for CSO music director Artur Rodzinski.

In 1948, after playing the trumpet in Navy bands in World War II, Adolph Herseth was pursuing a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. One afternoon, he received a telegram from Rodzinski, asking him to audition for a trumpet position in the Chicago Symphony. Herseth thought it was for third trumpet. It was all so simple. Herseth played and Rodzinski hired him — but for first trumpet, not third. Herseth would be the CSO’s principal trumpet and one of the world’s most highly regarded orchestral players for more than a half-century; he relinquished the principal trumpet chair in 2001 and served as principal trumpet emeritus until his retirement in 2004.

Four years before Herseth’s arrival in Chicago, tuba legend Arnold Jacobs began his 44-year CSO tenure. Jacobs graduated in 1936 from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, played with the Indianapolis Symphony, and then held the tuba chair of the Pittsburgh Symphony under Fritz Reiner from 1939 until 1944. The foundation of the CSO brass section, Jacobs was a virtuosic performer who helped make Chicago ground zero for great brass playing.

Of course, a great brass section requires a great principal horn. Philip Farkas was a Chicago boy, grew up here, played in Civic and before graduating from high school, became principal horn of the Kansas City Philharmonic. In 1936, he became first horn in the Chicago Symphony. Five years later, he was appointed first horn in Cleveland. He went to Boston for the first horn position there in 1945, returned to Cleveland the following year and finally landed back in Chicago, where he was principal horn from 1947 to 1960.

In 1966, I sat in the Orchestra Hall gallery for a Friday afternoon concert. Onstage that afternoon was the CSO’s newly appointed principal horn, Dale Clevenger. He would occupy the principal horn chair until his retirement in 2013, defining orchestral horn playing for more than four decades.

French conductor Jean Martinon was CSO music director when Clevenger arrived here. Martinon left in 1968, and in 1969, Georg Solti began his tenure. It was a magical time for the CSO, especially the brass section, with Solti conducting plenty of Mahler and Bruckner, embarking on international tours and making many unforgettable recordings.

Through the years, there have been personnel changes as older players retire and young ones take their places. But the sound of the CSO Brass has remained remarkably consistent. That big, rich brass sound is as much a part of Chicago as the city’s skyscrapers or lakefront. It’s been that way since the days of Fritz Reiner and continues through the present.

Getting to hear the CSO Brass in a concert completely devoted to brass music is the dream of anybody who ever played trumpet, trombone, horn or tuba. “Back in the ’70s, the CSO Brass played on one or two chamber music concerts,” Friedman said. “Then, in the early ’80s, we organized a brass concert at Orchestra Hall, which we also did in New York.”

“One of the things we try to do is to go beyond the show pieces and transcriptions and perform engaging music that elevates and challenges,” said CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy, who will be conducting this year’s CSO Brass concert.

Of course, there’s nothing like performing before an enthusiastic audience. This concert coincides with one of the music industry’s biggest events: the annual Midwest Clinic, the world’s largest instrumental music education conference, which this year runs Dec. 17-20 at McCormick Place West. CSO Brass concerts are popular, but when they coincide with the Midwest Clinic, they’re a guaranteed hot ticket. “They sell out every time,” Friedman said.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s a chance to hear a superb brass section with a long history of inspired music-making, and one that’s thoroughly steeped in that CSO tradition of “reaching for the sky.”

Jack Zimmerman, a recovering trombonist, is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.