Gene Pokorny and pals in a tuba ‘first’: Edward Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’

Gene Pokorny, principal tuba

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

An open letter from Gene Pokorny, principal tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

I am so looking forward to introducing this video to all of you. To borrow a phrase from longtime Chicago radio talk show host Paul Harvey, you will now hear “The Rest of the Story” — or at least the background behind this video and the making of it.

The idea was sent to me a few weeks ago. Scott Sutherland, a tuba-playing colleague in California, was contacted by Roger Bobo, an international tuba icon, who was a tuba teacher of mine when I was in college. Roger told Scott that professional tuba players should play something together in light of the current pandemic.

Scott jumped on this captivating idea. It would be a “first” for professional tuba players to gather remotely the world over and play some great music in a proclamation of solidarity. The music chosen was “Nimrod” from Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It is simultaneously solemn and triumphal in that it honors those who have been victims and has the hopeful energy of the eventual rise from crisis.

The idea of trying to get decently recorded sounds from tuba players who are sequestered in low-ceilinged houses and apartments hardly seemed imaginable. Even a tall, 12-foot ceiling is no match for low tuba notes, which can produce sound waves that are 16 feet long. Practicing in these conditions is reluctantly tolerable, but how is a world-class sound going to emerge from such squashed spaces? Would the recording represent the fine qualities produced by each of these musicians? Would it resonate, both literally and figuratively, with those who listen to and watch the video?

I should not have been worried. It worked. After receiving some instructions, pitches to match, click tracks (metronome clicks), etc., 94 tuba players from all over the planet independently started to record nearly four minutes of music. These individual efforts were sent to Scott Sutherland’s studio, where, with Philip Broome of the West Point Band, they synergized the components into what, I think, is a transcendent product.

Hearing and watching the first rough edit blew me away. The combination of being under unofficial house arrest, listening to Elgar’s incredible music and watching my colleagues, many of whom are friends, was simply overwhelming. It was a reunion, but I had no idea of the impact it would have on me until I saw it.

It caused me to think ahead to a future time when my colleagues in the Chicago Symphony will once again see you, our esteemed patrons, and you will see us. Together, we will celebrate the music that we have all missed hearing and performing live. Whenever that event occurs, we will think we are going to a concert. But as that grand event unfolds, we will realize it will be much more than a concert. It will be a reunion.

I can hardly wait.

Gene Pokorny, who holds the Arnold Jacobs Principal Tuba Chair, endowed by Christine Querfeld, joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1989.