Chicago 2008: A Special Week – A Memior

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I just finished a very interesting and challenging week playing 2nd Tuba on Symphonie Fantastique with the Chicago Symphony.  Gene Pokorny invited me to play with him and it made a profound impression on me. I was conscious all week of the entire CSO operation from the musicians, to the physical plant, to the management, to the audience, to the city. I felt greatly honored to play with Gene and that superb ensemble  but to also be so warmly welcomed by everyone. The guest conductor was Fabio Luisi, who I found to do a terrific job.

We had very little rehearsal – only about 10 minutes on the  first part of the 4th movement on the first rehearsal, a slightly  rehearsed 2nd rehearsal and a real, straight through dress with  a large  comp audience (of mostly musicians from the Mid-West Band and Orchestra Clinic).

The concerts were really special because the tubas sit there for 40+ minutes before playing a note. SF is an amazing composition but (in all the times I played it over the years) I was never so captivated by the brilliance of Berlioz. I hardly heard a “blip” technically, and have never heard such evenness in solo and section playing. The 8 basses, which (thankfully) sit right to the left to the tubas, down one riser, were so precise and powerful, as were the 4 bassoons, which have really great parts throughout SF.

Overall I was taken by the precision of the orchestra. We often think of the Chicago Symphony as being a loud orchestra (which they can be) but I was impressed that the sound never got harsh—even at the loudest volumes. On the other hand I heard much sensitive soft playing by all. There were many gorgeous solos notably by the Oboes and English Horn in the slow movement. The strings were so together! All of the famous brass guys were playing that week, Chris Martin, Mark Ridenour, John Hagstrom, and Tage Larsen, trumpets; Dale Clevenger, Daniel Gingrich, James Smelser, David Griffin, Otto Carillo and Susanna Drake, horns; Jay Friedman, James Gilbertson, Michael Mulcahy, and Charlie Vernon, trombones; and Gene. I was warmly welcomed by all the brass guys and it was great to meet them all and to hear them play.

While I have had a lifetime of playing with great musicians, this was something special. And I played well! Gene asked me to double him on a lot of the 1st tuba part and on (all of) the last page. It made it much more fun and challenging.  Boy is he a positive player. We nailed the Dies Irae every time. After the  2nd concert John Hagstrom, the second trumpet, came up to  Gene and me and said it was the most together he ever heard  the tubas in SF  now that made me feel good! One thing new to  me was that Gene asked me to double the entire triplet run  down an octave, starting on low CC while he went up for the  high Bb.

I was impressed by the operation and physical plant at Symphony Hall, lots of space for storage, dressing rooms, offices. There were many various sized practice rooms available for the musicians at all times. John Deverman (formerly of the PSO) is the new Personnel Manager and he and the stage hands et al were very precise and efficient. I also saw another PSO administrative alum Brandon Knisley. The CSO had something like 13 services that week (a hard working band) and it was a smoothly run operation. The trumpets, trombones and tubas were in the back row—separated by an  empty row from the strings and woodwinds but there were no  sound shields used. Earlier when I played with the LA Phil they  some used compact padded shields which were not a sight  problem for the brass. (The PSO uses those ugly (huge), scratched plastic shields that are marginal at best and  miserable for us to see through).

Earlier in the week I went to another concert of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto and the Tchaikovsky First Symphony. David Zinman conducted. Jamie and I sat in the gallery behind the orchestra but it sounded good from there.

The only brass in the Concerto were four horns and tuba. I’ve played it a couple of times. The tuba part is a very soft kind of low long note bass line and very exposed. Gene played softly and appropriate to the piece.  The Tchaik 1 has a few well  played brass bursts but overall is a trite piece (to me).

Throughout the week I was given a lesson in great tuba playing. Gene used Jake’s York for that concert and for the brass concert, and a Mirafone Firebird F for the Symphonie Fantastique. I played my trusty Yamaha 822 F. During the week I played a duet with Gene with me playing the York. I have mixed feelings about that legendary horn. It is very easy to blow, the high register is as easy as an F tuba and (of course) it has a great, centered warm sound.  For a brief duet I found it difficult to play in tune (an opinion that Tommy Johnson told me when he played it). But Gene has mastered the pitch problems and sounds wonderful on it.

On Thursday afternoon the CSO Brass played a brilliant concert. They sure demonstrated why many consider the CSO brass section to be the finest in the country—if not the world. The sold out audience were mostly musicians from the Mid-West Clinic. The program included arrangements of the Bach “Prelude and Fugue in C Minor”, selections from “Die Meistersinger”, “Music for Brass” by Dahl, selections from Weill’s Three Penny Opera, Michael Tilson Thomas’, “Street Song”, “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morton Lauredsen (which we had done the week before at Pacific), and several encores.

They played three difficult services that day. There were beautiful solos by everyone and a huge dynamic range. Jamie and were joined by my brother Joe and his wife Carolyn in the audience. They came from Toledo and spent the rest of the week with us at the Palmer House and went to the Saturday night concert of SF. It was great having them there. This year Joe and Carolyn traveled all over the country for my special events: my “Tour de Force” premier in California, Lifetime Achievement Award in Cincinnati and now Chicago. So I treated them to Chicago.

Another reason for accepting the CSO gig was that the Mid West Band and Orchestra Clinic was at the Hilton that week and Yamaha gave me a pass. I spent some time there seeing old friends, trying horns and promoting the band (and) orchestra versions of “Tour de Force”.  Yamaha had a nice dinner for the CSO Yamaha Artists before the Thursday concert and invited me. All of the concerts were filled with musicians from the Mid West.

TubaChristmas in Chicago also took place at our hotel on Saturday afternoon so I got to go to one—a rarity for me. It was big and in a beautiful ball room but difficult to see the players from the audience. It was interesting comparing my LA TubaChristmas to that. I am pleased that, while smaller, ours is faster paced, more varied in music and a better “show”. The best thing was we got to see Harvey Phillips and family. Harvey is still hanging in there with his wheelchair and ailments. His mind is sharp and I sure admire his tenacity.

The Chicago weather was brutal. Lots of snow the first couple of days and below zero when we left. It was a good reminder why I live in California. However, part of the charm of Chicago at Christmastime is the snow and the shops and the spirit.

Prices were out of sight. We got the CSO rate at the Palmer House (one block from the concert hall) but food prices were big time expenses. One evening we had a great meal with Gail Williams, Larry Combs, Gene and others and another later with Joe and Carolyn at a place they had frequented. It was a kind of paid vacation—I lost money but gained so much more.

This was a memorable week for sure and ended a great month of symphony playing  a week of Alpine Symphony with Norm, the LA Phil and Dudamel, a week of The Planets with St. Clair and the Pacific and finally a week with Gene, Luisi and the Chicago Symphony playing Symphonie Fantastique   pretty good orchestra month for a proto be bopper tuba player!!

I grew up listening to all the great Chicago Symphony records but never dreamed that I would get to play with them.  I’m a lucky guy!

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