Gene Pokorny is revved up for his ‘mission possible’: Schrifin’s Tuba Concerto

Principal Tuba Gene Pokorny says of Schifrin's Tuba Concerto: “I first performed it with the Redlands Symphony about five years ago, and it’s grown on me quite a bit. I think it’s pretty special."

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Tuba playing must be good for the lungs. When Gene Pokorny joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as principal tuba during the Sir Georg Solti years, he succeeded Arnold Jacobs, who had been in the CSO since 1944. During their time, there have been eight music directors at the helm: Désiré Defauw, Artur Rodzińki, Rafael Kubelik, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Solti (for whom Jacobs and Pokorny both performed), Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti. That’s 79 years combined, and Pokorny’s not done yet. 

It was via a phone call by the legendary Lalo Schifrin that Pokorny first learned that the composer of the theme to the “Mission: Impossible” TV and film series wanted to write a tuba concerto for him. Pokorny admits he was surprised to be phoned from out of the blue, but it should be noted that as a player, he was hardly “Pokorny who?” in the Hollywood realm. A California native, he studied with the area’s tuba greats, played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed on the soundtracks of “Jurassic Park” (1993), “The Fugitive” (1993) and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), among other films. 

Composer Lalo Schifrin visits at home with Gene Pokorny. Schifrin's Tuba Concerto was first performed by Pokorny in 2018, with Ransom Wilson conducting.

Pokorny said yes, and he loved the result. “I first performed it with the Redlands [California] Symphony about five years ago, and it’s grown on me quite a bit,” he said. “I think it’s pretty special. But I felt weird pressing the cause with Muti about me and this tuba piece. It’s kind of a funny story, because I don’t really raise the flag that often on behalf of the tuba. But then I learned I was to have this meeting with Muti because he wanted to talk about what concerto I might want to play! 

“So I brought him the Schifrin score. Muti looked at it for about two and a half minutes in total silence. Very slowly, turning one page, and then another page, he went through it, until finally he got to the end. And he closed the score, and he said to me, ‘If I’m alive, I’ll consider conducting it!’” The two will perform Schifrin’s Tuba Concerto with the CSO in concerts June 15-17 at Orchestra Hall. 

Both Muti and Pokorny are creatures of high wit, and Pokorny muses about the idea of the maestro’s grandkids thinking he’s finally conducting something they’ll love: “I have no idea of the age of his grandkids, but I’m fantasizing. I mean, this is the composer of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ theme! Believe it! Besides, Muti has this terrific sense of humor and adventure. He wants to be a comedian, and he is! We work very hard, but we have such a good time with him. 

“And I am still amazed by Muti’s conducting. He gives the illusion that whatever music we are playing seems to be his favorite piece, and that there is really no place he’d rather be. He’s captivating that way.”

Pokorny knows that people think of the tuba player as the guy counting rests at the far back of the stage. But, as they say in the film business, wait for it: As the drama builds toward that big moment, whether it’s in music or in the movies, you don’t want to squander the artillery too soon. And the composer Schifrin says he learned quite early that there is more to the tuba than punching through with power: “In my inner ear,” Schifrin once observed, “I heard a different quality. He believes the high register of the tuba can be very tender and expressive.

“We just keep trying to move the fulcrum one little bit in terms of what is possible.” — Gene Pokorny

The music that Schifrin composed includes a wide array of brass techniques that stem from the Bach era through modern times, including American jazz. Born in Buenos Aires, Schifrin first studied violin with his father, the concertmaster of the Teatro Colón Orchestra, and he also studied piano with Enrique Barenboim, the father of former Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim.

But the young Schifrin was just as smitten with jazz recordings and movie soundtracks. He was admitted to the Paris Conservatory, where he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen by day and haunted the jazz clubs at night. “Dizzy Gillespie brought Lalo into the spotlight,” Pokorny said. As one thing led to another, Schifrin’s Hollywood career developed naturally.

Chicago’s brass players have had other concertos written for them. In 2018, Pokorny was among a quartet of CSO musicians in the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto, custom-made for him and tenor trombonists Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy, and bass trombonist Charles Vernon. “We just keep trying to move the fulcrum one little bit in terms of what is possible,” Pokorny said.

In the traditional repertoire, one of Pokorny’s favorite solos for tuba is “Dance of the Peasant and the Bear” in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, which the CSO performed earlier this season. He also has many favorite moments for tuba in motion pictures, as in “Jurassic Park” and “The Fugitive.” And next season, when the CSO accompanies “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) as part of the orchestra’s popular CSO at the Movies series, you’ll hear the tuba’s impact at the point of the first encounter between Earth’s humans and the spaceship. Scientists signal “hello” with a five-note tune on a keyboard, and the spaceship responds with a tremendous basso bellow.

Despite the tuba’s low register, the instrument also is capable of playing in a very high range. When Pokorny plays in major orchestral works of the 19th century, it is not unusual that the instrumental lines were written for other brass instruments more popular in their day, somewhat higher in tessitura or brighter in color, such as the ophicleide or euphonium. But those are challenges that players like Pokorny can master.

After the world premiere in February 2018 of Jennifer Higdon's Low Brass Concerto, Gene Pokorny (from left), Riccardo Muti, Michael Mulcahy, Charles Vernon and Jay Friedman celebrate backstage at Orchestra Hall.

Todd Rosenberg Photography