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.
Even before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made its first international in 1971, its brass section had an international reputation. Fritz Reiner’s readings of Richard Strauss’ tone poems were widely circulated among brass aficionados the world over. Reiner’s 1954 recording of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben features 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 had a long tradition of stellar performance. That hallmark sound will be showcased when the CSO Brass presents its annual holiday concert Dec. 19 at Symphony Center. “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 trombone Michael Mulcahy, who as usual will conduct this year’s CSO Brass concert.
Bass trombone Edward 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. Chicago native Philip Farkas 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.
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.
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.
TOP: Members of the CSO Brass, including (front row, from left), John Hagstrom, Mark Ridenour and Michael Mulcahy, take a bow at their annual holiday concert. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017