Long celebrated for its lyricism, dynamism and virtuosity, the brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been a stand-out element of a world-class ensemble since the days of Fritz Reiner. As a separate artistic entity, the CSO Brass has cultivated a rock star-like following of deeply dedicated fans worldwide. Its concerts, including the annual December showcase at Symphony Center, receive boisterous ovations.
“We actually sell extra seats onstage [to the CSO Brass’ annual concert], so we’re a little cocky about that,” said CSO trombone Michael Mulcahy, the group’s director, with a laugh. “We’re just a small section of the orchestra, but we have a pretty strong draw.” Along with Mulcahy, the CSO Brass consists of five horns, Daniel Gingrich (acting principal), James Smelser, David Griffin, Oto Carrillo and Susanna Gaunt; trumpets Mark Ridenour (assistant principal), John Hagstrom and Tage Larsen; trombones Jay Friedman (principal) and Charles Vernon, and tuba Gene Pokorny (principal).
The origins of the CSO Brass concerts date to the early ’50s, when legendary musicians including Adolph Herseth, Arnold Jacobs and Frank Crisafulli formed the Chicago Symphony Brass Quintet. Members of the full section began performing stand-alone concerts in 1970s. Since 2006, as part of the Symphony Center Presents Special Concerts lineup, the CSO Brass has offered its annual showcase, with this season’s performance on Dec. 19. And though the concerts take place around Christmas, they aren’t holiday-themed. Of the works on this year’s program, only Tchaikovsky’s Suite from The Nutcracker fits that bill.
“That’s not really our forte,” Mulcahy said of holiday fare. “And we belong to a very significant institution, so the program itself has to have musical and artistic integrity, as well as being engaging and entertaining. As part of that, every program [features] music that was originally written for brass, not just arranged [for these instruments].”
An example on this year’s program is Raymond Premru’s Symphony for Brass and Percussion. A jazz-influenced composer and trombonist who co-founded and wrote for a big band when he played with the Philharmonia Orchestra London, Premru (1943-1998) was commissioned to pen a low brass concerto by Riccardo Muti, the CSO’s current music director, during Muti’s days with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Performing brass music by composers who are or were themselves brass players has distinct advantages. “Sometimes young composers, in particular, will write something with no knowledge of how any instrument works, so you can only play an approximation,” Mulcahy said. “Whereas something like Premru’s symphony is very informed and very idiomatic to play, but very challenging, too.”
Because the CSO Brass performs this annual concert in addition to its CSO performances, Mulcahy is ever mindful of the group’s endurance when choosing (with the members’ input) repertoire. The program represents a lot of extra work, he acknowledges, “and sometime it’s like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to climb this mountain again.’ But when we give this concert, when we go onstage, we [think], ‘oh, yeah.’ This is a special atmosphere that’s not present in that way in any other forum. There is an electricity, and our audience goes pretty crazy.”
Mulcahy also knows from extensive personal experience how taxing brass instruments are to play — especially when they comprise the majority of instruments onstage. “Musically speaking, we have to represent the entire pallet of the orchestra with about 20 musicians, so it’s artistically challenging,” he said. “And it’s physically challenging, because we have to play all the notes. No one doubles our parts.
“Chicago Symphony Brass is famous for dynamics and articulation,” he said. “The ability to play smoothly, the ability to sing, the ability to play with great clarity and articulation and to sustain a very smooth line are specifically hallmarks of the CSO brass section. And that tradition precedes all of us who are currently in the section.”
So while Mulcahy and his colleagues are intensely present onstage, the past, as represented by Herseth, Crisafulli, Jacobs and others, is never far away.
“Anyone who plays for the [the NBA’s Chicago] Bulls knows there was a certain Michael Jordan in town in the ’90s,” Mulcahy said, “and that [fact] will forever hover over you.”
Note: A post-concert discussion featuring select members of the CSO Brass and with Philip Biggs, editor of The Brass Herald magazine, will be held onstage. After the discussion there will be an informal meet and greet with members of the CSO Brass.
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.
TOP: Members of the CSO Brass, including John Hagstrom, Mark Ridenour and Michael Mulcahy (center), take a bow at last season’s concert. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017