Michael Mulcahy and the CSO Brass prepare for their annual showcase

Trombonist Michael Mulcahy has played with the world-class Chicago Symphony Orchestra for three decades. While that in itself is a laudable feat, Mulcahy admits his biggest challenge is the annual and much beloved concert he performs with his fellow CSO brass members every season. Happening this year on Dec. 18, the CSO Brass concert is sure to be a real blowout — and not just in a punny sort of way.

“We only do this event once a year,” Mulcahy says. “People know it’s coming, and it will sell out. So there’s an electricity and an intensity about it because it’s unique and rare. It has a little bit of a sporting event vibe — a little bit of Super Bowl power to it. When you’re in the hall, you can hear the buzz.”

In meticulously assembling the program, Mulcahy acts as something of a curator.

“It’s a balance. Of course I have my own personal biases and things that I really believe in more than others,” he says. “I have a fairly strict [view] that anything we play, even things that are popular, has to meet a certain threshold artistically to be worthy of the Chicago Symphony, of which we are a part. But it’s also for our own artistic integrity; I’m always looking for pieces that have artistic credibility. Also, because we’re the Chicago Symphony, we don’t play stuff that’s necessarily the easiest; we kind of put ourselves to the test. It’s honestly the hardest concert we play every year because we don’t have help from any other part of the orchestra. It’s just us.”

Although he receives and considers repertorial input from his colleagues, Mulcahy has the final word. “So if the program stinks,” he says half jokingly, “it’s definitely on me.”

Rest assured that won’t be the case. Quite the opposite. While it might not be perfect, because music is highly subjective, that doesn’t stop Mulcahy and company from striving for interpretive and technical flawlessness in everything they play. The fact that clunkers are far more apparent sans the sonic cover of a full orchestra provides some extra incentive.

“All of us as artists have a vision in our heads of everything we try to do, and that vision is pretty damn good. It has to be,” Mulcahy says. “You need to have an idea that tells you exactly what to do, that you can rely on and concentrate on as you execute.”

He tells his students that, too — that playing without a vision is “like getting on the freeway with your eyes closed. There’s a chance you’ll make it, but not in a very good way. “I’m also reinforcing the idea for myself,” he adds, “because you’re only as good as your last game.”

That’s never truer than for what serves as the Super Bowl for the mighty CSO Brass.

Originally published on Sounds and the Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.