Michael Mulcahy considers himself a lucky man. As a boy in Sydney, Australia, he was crazy about sports and hoped that he would grow up to be a professional rugby player. But reality struck at age 14 when he realized, with his teammates towering all around him, that probably he ought to pursue other options. He did not have to look far for a more suitable alternative, and that has worked out quite well.
Just how well he has done will be especially evident Dec. 20 when he leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass in its annual showcase concert.
But how did he get to Symphony Center, besides by practicing a lot? There was plenty of good fortune, he explains. “At home, I was surrounded by music. My mother played violin, and my dad was a trombonist. So I just grabbed his trombone one day and started tooting,” he recalled. Not the violin? “It was way too late for that!”
When his dad took him to concerts, he would point out what the trombone was doing. “So I was unwittingly groomed for it,” Mulcahy said. After posts with the Tasmanian and Melbourne symphonies, he eventually left home for a stellar career in Europe. In 1989, Sir Georg Solti appointed Mulcahy to the CSO.
“The CSO brass tradition predates by at least 50 years all of the current members. Those of us who are lucky enough to inherit the legacy are honored by the opportunity to do this concert,” Mulcahy said. “But we’ve also been entrusted with this legacy, which needs to be more broadly appreciated than as just part of the orchestra.”
As the group’s director, Mulcahy feels compelled to cover a wide expanse of musical terrain mapped long ago by the legendary Philip Farkas (horn), Adolph Herseth (trumpet), Arnold Jacobs (tuba) and others. That tradition continues. “There are a lot of personalities in our group, a variety of ideas. So the program is an amalgam of those ideas as well as the musicianship of the individual players,” Mulcahy said.
“I also need to protect the artistic level of the group,” he added. “I have very high standards. We don’t play pop music. This is not the group for that. In fact. I don’t think the lighter stuff is something we would do particularly well. What we do well is play great music of many different styles — early, contemporary, original … written and arranged for brass.”
The 2017 program follows true to form. It Offers a fantasy by Dutch composer Jan Van der Roost, a meditation on family by Michael Tilson Thomas, a bold new work by CSO alumnus (and former student of Mulcahy’s) Timothy Higgins, a liturgically styled piece by Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara, with everything capped by highlights from Puccini’s Turandot.
“All tough pieces,” Mulcahy said. “So I really appreciate how brave my colleagues are to tackle it all. It’s like putting together a great symphony program and giving the woodwinds and strings the night off, and them telling the brass players, “OK! It’s all yours. Good luck!”
Additional notes from Mulcahy about the program:
Van der Roost, Canzona from Tre Skizze: “This piece was written very much in the arc of a Gabrieli canzona [a type of 16th- or 17th-century contrapuntal music]. It starts out like that but then goes into some outlying areas in time and space that take you forward to our time and on to fantasy. It takes the idea of a canzona and turns into something like a hallucination.” (Mulcahy has experience in this realm as soloist in the 2016 CSO world premiere of Five Hallucinations, Carl Vine’s concerto for trombone and orchestra.)
Tilson Thomas, Street Song for Symphonic Brass: “This is very personal, almost like a portrait of the composer’s family heritage. There are more or less three movements, opening with a cascading theme that develops into a mysterious dance with fascinating harmonies. Then you arrive at a place of great calm, with a sound like alphorns yodeling in the mountains and echoing through the valleys in a tender hymn. The last movement is jazzy and theatrical, with everything resolved for a peaceful end. There are a lot of threads in this eclectic piece from the ultimate eclectic musician, Michael Tilson Thomas.”
Higgins, Sinfonietta for Brass Ensemble and Percussion: “CSO timpani and percussion have a big role in this four-movement mini-symphony. It has some gorgeous arias that give the brass a chance to play very vocally. Tim [Higgins], principal trombone with the San Francisco Symphony, has done some spectacular arrangements for us, but this is the first original piece of his that we will perform.”
Rautavaara, A Requiem in Our Time: “Powerful, moving, haunting moments from the liturgy. First a noble, fanfare-y hymn, like an introit. Then a section about faith and the ability to keep it. Next comes a battle of heaven and earth and trying to stay in the right place. The last movement is his Lacrymosa, not as massive as the Mozart Requiem but definitely of its character.”
Puccini, arranged by Geoffrey Boyd, Highlights from Turandot: “We finish with Puccini because his opera so rousing and so beautiful. The brass get to be divas for the finale, and they rise to the occasion. But no one dies. A good time is had by all.”