Gene Pokorny Interview (Part One)

The Northshore Concert Band is honored to welcome Guest Soloist Gene Pokorny, Principal Tuba Of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first concert of our 61st season!  Widely considered the finest tuba player in the world today, our November 6, 2016 concert, entitled Reflections, marks his first solo performance with the Northshore Concert Band!

Before joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra he was tuba player in the Israel Philharmonic, the Utah Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition to playing film scores in Hollywood such as Jurassic Park and The Fugitive,  he is a member of the Union Pacific (Railroad) Historical Society and spends time as a “foamer” (watching and chasing trains) as well as a card-carrying member of The Three Stooges Fan Club.

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Northshore Concert Band member Paul Bauer recently interviewed Gene Pokorny. Below is part one of this fascinating peek into the life of this remarkable musician.

Please tell us a bit about your journey through trumpet, saxophone, and clarinet to the tuba.

My dad was a trumpet player.  I followed in his footsteps and picked up the trumpet soon after I had started on piano.  I started on the wrong foot by using too much mouthpiece pressure and was very tense.  My dad knew this was not right so I switched to saxophone.  Soon thereafter I switched to clarinet.  When I was in 8th grade, the tuba player in the junior high band was graduating and they needed somebody to play.  When you’re sitting in a junior high clarinet section, the sounds are enough to make you start to see dead relatives…and my sounds were at least as bad as my clarinet-playing schoolmates.  So moving to the tuba at the back of the band room was the easy way out especially since it was also closest to the back door and a quick escape to snack period.  Eventually, I stuck with the tuba into high school.  At one point, one of the tuba players in the high school band said he wanted to have a brass quintet play at the Moravian Church of Downey where his dad was the reverend.  When we played at the church, I noticed the choir director pick up a trombone and started to play during the offertory.  I thought he sounded good and I told him.   I found out the next week that Jeff Reynolds (the choir director) had just won the Los Angeles Philharmonic bass trombone job!!  So I started to really get interested in low brass instruments.  I took some bass trombone lessons from him.  I realized right away that I would never, ever, ever become as good as he was on bass trombone.  So I thought it would be better to stick with the tuba.  I took some lessons from him, and eventually he said I should take some tuba lessons from Roger Bobo [tubist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic].  So I did.  I was getting hooked big time.  I started to listen to Roger Bobo’s recordings.  While I was impressed with his playing, my goal was to become a high school band director as a rebellion against my really diminutive high school music program: 2,300 students in the high school and we had 25 people in the band.  It was next to nothing and very depressing.  I kept the playing up but my main goal was to become a band director.  I was a music education major when I first went to college at the University of Redlands.  Everything changed however on the night of May 13, 1973.  A visiting orchestra came to San Diego which some of my pals at Redlands and I attended.  It was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti playing Mahler Symphony #5.  That evening made a big difference in my outlook.  I decided to take the plunge and try to become a professional performer and leave the band director goals behind.   I transferred to the University of Southern California, because Tommy Johnson taught there.  He was the final word as far as learning how to play the tuba in Southern California although I still took lessons from Roger Bobo.  In the spring of 1975, I received a call from Bobo who said that there was a tuba position open in the Israel Philharmonic.  He thought I should audition for it.  I would be playing for Zubin Mehta [Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Conductor/Music Advisor of the Israel Philharmonic].  It was pretty easy to drive to the audition site at the Los Angeles Music Center.  The trombone section from the LA Philharmonic listened along with Mehta to me and a couple other players.  Mehta had some other people to listen to in other cities.  I drove back to USC and continued my day.  It was about two weeks later that I got a call from Bobo, who said that Mehta wanted me for the Israel Philharmonic and I should give him a call at a hotel in Italy.  I was on cloud nine.  I gave him a call and I got a contract in the mail. [Gene graduated from USC and then began playing with the Israel Philharmonic in 1975].

What do you enjoy most about your life as a musician?  

While I very much enjoy being on stage playing in the orchestra, I really enjoy playing recitals, picking my own repertoire, and having the privilege of introducing new music, old music, abused music and/or unused music, to people.    I like the opportunity to be able to stand in front of an audience and open the musical doors wide and be welcoming so people can relate to what they are about to listen to.  I think it’s really important to do that.  If you are playing a great piece of music, serve it on bona fide china rather than on a paper plate.  It will make it seem more special to the people listening.  By telling just a few facts about the music or the composer at the time of his writing a piece, you can greatly enhance the perception of how the piece is heard.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Russia and Italy Tour

CSO tuba Gene Pokorny hits a few high notes in warm up before a concert in Brescia.             © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2012

Please share a bit about memorable experiences you have had playing in bands.

My high school experience with bands was very unrewarding.  I learned that it could have been much different and a lot better when I went to several summer music camps.  One was at the Idyllwild School of Music and Arts [now called the Idyllwild Arts Academy]. The band director when I was there was Benton Minor [who taught at the California State University – Fullerton]. He was a highly-disciplined task master who insisted that you always show up at least 10 minutes before rehearsal and that you always have a rehearsal pencil.  If not, you would suffer.  That was not a threat; that was a promise.  There have been times when I left for rehearsal here [CSO], and if I discovered that I did not have my rehearsal pencil with me, I would go home to get it.  It was better than being guilt-ridden.  The lasting impression I had of Benton Minor was the idea of a pyramidal sense of balance, where the bottom register is the strongest and most reliable in pitch and rhythm.  Consequently, the highest notes in the ensemble are of lesser importance.  I heard this idea espoused by W. Francis MacBeth [renowned wind composer] and Clarence Sawhill [band director at UCLA] who taught at Arrowbear Music Camp in California.  I thought that’s the way an orchestra should be balanced.  I later found out that that is what George Szell brought to the Cleveland Orchestra.  Anyway, after my orchestra career started, I really missed playing in band and its repertoire – Gustav Holst’s Military Suites, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Toccata Marziale, H. Owen Reed’s La Fiesta Mexicana, music of Roger Nixon, etc.  The only band repertoire that made it onto the orchestra stage was when Erich Leinsdorf conducted the St. Louis Symphony in an orchestral version of Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, which I remember from high school honor band. There have been times when I have gone incognito in some local community bands either hiding in the tuba section or hiding in the third clarinet section.

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What have been some of your musical influences?

Majors influences (some retired/late) include:

Larry Johansen – taught tuba at University of Redlands when I first arrived there in 1971.

Jeff Reynolds (bass trombone – Los Angeles Philharmonic, choir director – Moravian Church of Downey, California). Influential teacher, hero.  He was my model.

Roger Bobo (tuba – Los Angeles Philharmonic) The singularly most distinctive tuba sound around.  He is to tuba as Pavarotti was to being a tenor. 

Tommy Johnson (tuba – Los Angeles studios) Influential teacher during formative time.  Crown prince of the low register.

Red (David) Lehr (sousaphone – St. Louis; traditional jazz, ragtime, dixieland) I don’t know of a player who plays any smoother. Red is the most amazing legato tuba player I have ever heard, and his main influence was Pete Fountain (iconic New Orleans traditional jazz clarinetist)

Mordechai Rechtman (Principal bassoon – Israel Philharmonic) He could completely control the orchestra with his instrument from where he was sitting.

George Silfies (Principal clarinet – St. Louis Symphony) A consummate musician.

Arnold Jacobs (tuba – Chicago Symphony) had a distinctive sound and tension-less approach.

Floyd Cooley (tuba – San Francisco Symphony) Had a solo sound that offered another approach for me from my earliest influences

Rex Martin (Professor of tuba – Northwestern University) I’d describe him as a young and vital Arnold Jacobs with an amazingly large tool box to help fix playing problems.

Warren Deck (tuba – New York Philharmonic) Is probably my favorite orchestral tuba player.

Larry Combs (Principal clarinet – Chicago Symphony) One of those players who never failed to take my breath away. 

Steve (Stephen) Williamson (Principal Clarinet – Chicago Symphony Orchestra) I never thought I’d hear anyone as good as that.

Michael Mulcahy (trombone – Chicago Symphony Orchestra) The only predictable thing about Mulcahy’s playing is that it is unpredictable. When I attend a recital of his, I know I am going to have an exciting ride.


Please join us on Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 3:00 pm at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University; 50 Arts Circle Drive in Evanston, Illinois for Reflections,  conducted by Artistic Director Mallory Thompson, and featuring guest soloist Gene Pokorny, Principal Tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra!

Program highlights will include:
Elegy – John Barnes Chance
Gene Pokorny, tuba soloist
o Turbulence – Bruce Broughton
o Over the Rainbow – Harold Arlen/arr. Alan Morrison/trans. Joseph Kreines
Festive Overture – Dmitri Shostakovich/arr. Donald Hunsberger
October – Dmitri Shostakovich/arr. Preston Mitchell

Ticket Information:
Individual concert tickets are $20 each, seniors $15, students/children $10.To make these unforgettable performances accessible for music lovers of all ages we offer special group rates to groups of 10 or more.  Call us at 847-432-2263 or email adam@northshoreband.org  to customize your group ticket package today!

Tickets are available in advance or at the box office on the day of the concert.
The box office opens at 2:00 pm on the day of the concert.

For More Information:
Visit www.northshoreband.org or call (847) 432-2263.

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Magnolia Star by Steve Danyew

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Steve Danyew is an award-winning composer for wind, choral, orchestral + chamber groups. He received a B.M. from the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami and holds an M.M. in Composition and Certificate in Arts Leadership from the Eastman School of Music.

Magnolia Star, a highlight of our fall 2016 concert Reflections, is an energetic piece that was written for wind ensembles.  The Magnolia Star was a train that ran from New Orleans to Chicago with the famous Panama Limited in the mid 20th century.This work evokes train travel with driving rhythms, train-like sonorities, and also uses the blues scale as the primary pitch material of the piece.

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Composer Steve Danyew has this to say about his fun and energetic Magnolia Star:

“When I was playing saxophone in my middle school jazz band, we started every rehearsal the same way – with an improvisation exercise that our director created.  It was a simple yet brilliant exercise for teaching beginning improvisation and allowing everyone in the band a chance to “solo.”  As a warm-up at the opening of each rehearsal, the whole band played the blues scale ascending, resting for one measure, descending, and resting for another measure (see example below).

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During the measures of rest, each member of the band took turns improvising a solo.  Looking back, this exercise not only got the band swinging together from the start of rehearsal, but it made improvisation, a daunting musical task to many, seem within everyone’s abilities.

This experience was my introduction to the blues scale, and I have long wanted to write a piece inspired by this group of pitches. In Magnolia Star, I explore various ways to use these pitches in harmonies, melodies, and timbres, creating a diverse set of ideas that will go beyond sounds that we typically associate with the blues scale. I didn’t want to create a “blues” piece, but rather a piece in my own musical voice that uses and pays homage to the blues scale.  Nearly all of the pitches used in Magnolia Star fit into the concert C blues scale.  It is interesting to note that embedded within the C blues scale are both a C minor triad, an Eb minor triad, and an Eb major triad.  I explore the alternation of these tonal areas right from the start of the piece, and continue to employ them in different ways throughout the entire work.

Another influence was trains and the American railroad. The railroad not only provides some intriguing sonic ideas, with driving rhythms and train-like sonorities, but it was also an integral part of the growth of jazz and blues in America.  In the late 19th century, the Illinois Central Railroad constructed rail lines that stretched from New Orleans and the “Delta South” all the way north to Chicago. Many southern musicians traveled north via the railroad, bringing “delta blues” and other idioms to northern parts of the country.  The railroad was also the inspiration for countless blues songs by a wide variety of artists.  Simply put, the railroad was crucial to the dissemination of jazz and blues in the early 20th century.  Magnolia Star was an Illinois Central train that ran from New Orleans to Chicago with the famous Panama Limited in the mid 20th century.” (images and quote are reproduced from www.stevedanyew.com)

Join us on Sunday November 5, 2016 as the Magnolia Star returns to the Chicagoland area!

Reflections

Sunday November 6, 2016, 3:00 pm
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, Illinois

 

 

For more information about Steve Danyew, visit www.stevedanyew.com.
To purchase tickets for this performance, visit www.northshoreband.org

The Northshore Concert Band Welcomes Guest Soloist Gene Pokorny, Principal Tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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The Northshore Concert Band is honored to welcome Gene Pokorny, Principal Tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for his first solo performance with NCB!

The program, entitled Reflections, is on Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 3:00 pm at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and is conducted by Artistic Director Mallory Thompson.

This concert opens our season of musical “Reflections” with a diverse program that embraces a world of freedom and fellowship. The concert’s driving opener, Magnolia Star, is a jazz and blues-inspired work by emerging American composer Steve Danyew that celebrates the Illinois Central Railroad and the symbolic way that its route brought art together in America.Reflections concludes with two contrasting works by Dmitri Shostakovich that commemorate the October Revolution of 1917. His familiar and celebratory Festive Overture was written and premiered in just three days in 1954. October, the composer’s only tone poem, was written in 1967 and depicts the struggle and triumph of humanity throughout history.  Program highlights featuring Mr. Pokorny  will include Turbulence by Bruce Broughton and Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen, arranged by  Alan Morrison and transcribed by Joseph Kreines.

Gene Pokorny has been the tuba player in the Chicago Symphony since 1989.  Previously, he was tuba player in the Israel Philharmonic, the Utah Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition to playing film scores in Hollywood such as Jurassic Park and The Fugitive, he has played in chamber music, opera orchestras and orchestra festivals worldwide. He grew up in Downey, California, about a mile from where the Apollo command modules that first took man to the moon were built. He studied tuba in Southern California with Jeffrey Reynolds, Larry Johansen, Tommy Johnson and Roger Bobo.  In recent years, he has annually returned to Southern California teaching, playing and lecturing at the Pokorny Seminar given at the University of Redlands.  He assisted Rolling Stones’ trombonist, Michael Davis, in the production of his “Twenty Minute Warm-Up” along with having solo and educational CDs of his own. He has received an Outstanding Alumnus Award and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Southern California and University of Redlands, respectively. Pokorny is a member of the Union Pacific (Railroad) Historical Society and spends time as a “foamer” (watching and chasing trains). He is a card-carrying member of The Three Stooges Fan Club (a “victim of soicumstances!”) and is an avid enthusiast of his good friend David “Red” Lehr, the greatest Dixieland sousaphonist in the known universe. Gene, his wife Beth Lodal (the one in the family with a three-digit IQ) and their basset hounds, (nonmusicians who happen to have real lives), regularly forage from their refrigerator, which is located in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.  (Biography courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra )

Reflections

Sunday, November 6, 2016
3:00 pm
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, Illinois

Please join us for this special performance!  Individual concert tickets are $20, tickets for seniors (65+) are $15 and student/child tickets are $10. Tickets are available in advance or at the box office on the day of the concert. The box office opens at 2:00 pm on the day of the concert.

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For More Information visit www.northshoreband.org or call (847) 432-2263.