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 at age 14, reality struck 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 he leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass in its annual showcase concert on Dec. 19.

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, music director Georg Solti appointed Mulcahy to the CSO.

As the CSO Brass’ 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,” he said. “So the program is an amalgam of those ideas as well as the musicianship of the individual players.

“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 … all written and arranged for brass.”

He promises that this year’s program will follow true to form. “I really appreciate how brave my colleagues are to tackle it all,” he said. “It’s like putting together a great symphony program and giving the woodwinds and strings the night off, and then telling the brass players, “OK! It’s all yours. Good luck!”

A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.

TOP: Michael Mulcahy leads his fellow section members in the annual holiday concert by the CSO Brass. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017