CSO Brass acclaimed for its purity of sound

CSO trombone Michael Mulcahy applies his considerable knowledge and insight to the annual CSO Brass concert. “I take suggestions from the players,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve done an amazing amount of great music.”

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Their names are legendary: Adolph Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, Edward Kleinhammer, and more recently, Gene Pokorny, Michael Mulcahy, Charlie Vernon and Jay Friedman. They are past and present members of the mighty CSO Brass.

It’s not uncommon to see high schoolers, septuagenarians and members of every other audience demographic in a state of sonic rapture at a CSO Brass concert. The annual CSO Brass spectacular’s origins can be traced to the 1970s, when the section appeared on a CSO chamber music concert.

That was the beginning, and through the years that followed, the personnel have changed, whole generations of audience members have moved from youth to middle age and beyond, but the basic sound and commitment to artistic excellence of the CSO Brass have remained remarkably constant.

An annual tradition, this year’s CSO Brass concert, on Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m., features a variety of American and seasonal works. The organizational force behind this endeavor is CSO trombone Michael Mulcahy. “I’m the director of the group. Someone has to run it, and they elected me. I even get to set up the music stands!” He says all this and laughs.

While Mulcahy jokes about his duties, he applies his considerable knowledge and insight to the concert’s programming. “I take suggestions from the players,” he says. “They have a variety of views — what they’d like to do, what they don’t like to do. I take all that into account and try to choose a program with some sense to it. Over the years, we’ve done an amazing amount of great music.”

Born and raised in Australia, Mulcahy has been in the CSO for more than 30 years. “I got the job in 1989, went on tour with the orchestra in the fall of that year and moved to Chicago the following January. That was four music directors ago.”

His father was a trombonist who had grown up in a non-musical family: “At that time, big-band jazz was on the radio, and my father heard Jack Teagarden. ‘I’m going to be a musician,’ he decided. Jack Teagarden played the trombone, so my father bought a trombone. He never got to work full time as a musician, but my father is the most passionate music consumer I know. Before I ever played a note, I was listening to music with my father and following the score.”

Mulcahy landed his first job with the Tasmanian Symphony. From there, he went to Melbourne. “There was an audition, and I was a real long shot,” he says. He may have been a long shot, but he got the job, then a few years later, he and his wife (horn player Gabby Mulcahy) left Melbourne and headed for Germany.

When Frank Crisafulli, the CSO’s longtime second trombonist (1938-1989), retired, Mulcahy was chosen to fill that vacancy. “I had never played with an orchestra where the brass section had such a personality,” he says. “I’d worked with some very good players, and there were always stars in the orchestras I played in, but in Chicago, there’s this heritage and tradition. It’s a very particular way of playing. Every person who joins this orchestra has some catching up to do — even when great players come here from other orchestras. It’s because the way of playing here is so specific.

“The dynamic range is the first thing. You need very good softs to play here. What would pass as a pianissimo in 99 percent of the places that I know of would be considered a mezzo piano here. And then there’s the purity of sound and the clarity of attack. I’m not saying that we’re better. I’m just saying that it’s very specific here.”

For decades, music writers have described the CSO brass section as “powerful,” “virtuosic” and “commanding,” but Mulcahy points out that there is another, equally important side to the musicians’ approach. “The CSO Brass has the reputation of being very athletic and vigorous, which it has always been. But it’s the classical stuff and particularly sacred music that our trombone section loves to play. If we’re playing Mozart or Schubert, that’s us at our happiest. I often say to Charlie Vernon [the CSO’s bass trombonist], ‘Isn’t it great to play Schubert with just three trombones?’ Really, it doesn’t get much better than that. As exciting as Mahler or Shostakovich is, the music of Mozart, Schubert and Brahms is so rewarding to play — and challenging.”

A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.