Pokorny Seminar by Jim Hattori
Us and Them to Only Us
It’s hard to put into words the extraordinary musicianship of Gene Pokorny, principal tuba of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But on the final day of the 2013 Pokorny Low Brass Seminar, Jeffrey Reynolds, retired bass trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, told a story at the final wrap-up session that did a pretty good job.
When Roger Bobo retired from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pokorny, who has strong ties to Southern California, decided to take the audition for Bobo’s chair, even though he was playing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the time. Reynolds, who was on the audition committee, still remembers vividly Pokorny’s performance in the audition.
Reynolds said, “The general MO (modus operandi) was this: when you hear about 35 tuba players in one day and then there’s another day of that, you get what I call the ‘numbs.’ So there were a lot of the string players on the committee and their favorite pose was looking at their shoes while the tuba players were playing. They didn’t even look up to see who was playing; each was only a number.
“There were several good players towards the end and Gene comes out with the string players looking down and he starts to play the solo from the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. I look around and the string players’ heads start to come up. I forget what else was on the audition list but each piece had absolute focus. It wasn’t some other piece warmed over. It was exactly that piece.
Faculty ensemble performance
“Now, why do I know this? After the audition I polled the committee members to see what their response was. And almost to the person, they said, ‘When he started to play you were absolutely sure that’s the way it should go. And each piece, you were sure that was exactly the style for that piece.’ That’s beyond the scale. You’ll never hear about it from him but I was there; I saw it happen. That’s why his name is on the marquee and not mine. It was truly an amazing situation.”
For those of you who don’t know the rest of story, he won the audition and had a trial period with the orchestra but ultimately decided to stay put in Chicago.
Whether it was an insight such as this, or hearing the exquisite musicianship of one of the esteemed faculty members in a recital, or receiving a helpful comment during a master class, the 2013 Pokorny Low Brass Seminar provided each performer and auditor an immense list of ideas and the inspiration to take their playing to a higher level. 2013 marked the sixth edition of the Pokorny Seminar. Pokorny explained that the origins of the seminar can be traced back to 2007 when the University of Redlands bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate. For some time he had been thinking about organizing a master class and at the ceremony for his honorary doctorate Pokorny approached Andrew Glendening, Dean of the School of Music at the University of Redlands who is also an accomplished trombonist and teacher. Pokorny said, “I proposed the idea of a master class to Andrew and he’s one of those guys that if you mention an idea, he just runs with it.”
Since its inception in 2008, the seminar has grown considerably in size and scope. Pokorny explained, “For the first year we just had tuba but then I thought it’s all about teamwork in an orchestra and one of my favorite bass trombone players is Randy Hawes from the Detroit Symphony so Randy came out the second year. Then I thought we’re really close to having a section so I wanted to get some tenor trombone players and my first selection was Michael Mulcahy (trombonist, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and professor of trombone at Northwestern University) and so he came out the third year. Then one of his students, Tim Higgins ended up getting the principal job in the San Francisco Symphony and so he came out in 2011 and again this year. And this year there was a chance that we could get Jeff (Reynolds) to come out of retirement and restart the engine. On each adventure with Jeff or Mulcahy I haven’t known what was going to happen but I knew whatever was going to happen was going to be great. To have those guys around is just something else.”
The daily schedule of the six-day seminar consisted of a group warm-up, morning and afternoon master classes, a combined trombone and tuba large ensemble, and the “Important Things” discussion which was a talk or presentation by a faculty member on topics ranging from useful tools for researching the musical background of piece (Glendening) to labor relations in professional orchestras (Higgins and Hawes). Following a dinner break, the faculty members played solo recitals and, on the penultimate day, they performed an ensemble concert. This year a special treat was a performance one afternoon by the Northwestern Trombone Quartet consisting of Mulcahy, Higgins, Hawes, and Peter Ellefson, professor of trombone at Indiana University.
I imagine, in that particular week in July, considering the quartet performance and the faculty recitals, there could have been no better example of low brass playing anywhere else on the planet. Indeed, Mulcahy said, “To hear four players of this caliber play solo recitals in one week, where does that happen?” Each faculty member’s recital was a tour de force of what is possible on a low brass instrument. But beyond their technical brilliance they played with such exquisite musicality and the beauty of their sounds was surely destined for the mental portfolios of those in attendance. One of the most experienced performers at the seminar, Bryan Heath, a 37-year-old doctoral student at Indiana University, freelance bass trombonist, and veteran of the audition circuit, summarized how inspiring these performances were. “As I heard the recitals, I thought ‘I have to do that, it’s not an option to not do this.’ I need to do this now, get back in the practice room and raise the bar so I’ll be ready.”
The 31 performers or participants in the master classes (16 tenor trombones, nine bass trombones, and six tubas) came from across the country as well as from Mexico, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Daihei Kurashina, 35, a free-lance tubist from Tokyo, made the long voyage specifically to attend the seminar. He previously had taken a few lessons with Pokorny and looked forward to the three master class session he would have with him during the week. John Leibensperger, 25, recently finished his master’s degree at Temple University. He explained his motivation for attending, “For me, the reason I got into tuba as a kid was hearing recordings of Gene…It’s always been a goal to study with him and this is the first time I could do it.”
Besides the geographic diversity of the performers, they also represented different levels of ability ranging from advanced high school students to college students to working professionals and to talented amateurs. This diversity in ability, experience, and age is a hallmark of the seminar and served to instill a highly supportive environment for the performers. Glendening said, “It’s not about being at the top of the curve or that you’re the next guy on the audition circuit. It’s more about being serious and being at a level where you can gain from it…We’re all learning from each other.” Higgins said, “Everyone seems to benefit from all of the different levels including myself. It keeps me on my toes, that’s for sure, because you have to determine what that person needs right away, what their long-term goal might be and where they are on that path.”
Team-building is one of the core themes of the seminar. Each performer was assigned to a section which rehearsed excerpts or chamber music which were then presented in two master class sessions. The guidance on excerpt playing by these seasoned orchestral professionals was invaluable. Often, a faculty member would trade places with one of the performers which was the equivalent of playing in a three on three basketball game when all of sudden you find LeBron James on your team. Perhaps nobody was more psyched than 16-year-old Liam Glendening (Andrew Glendening’s son) who got to play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in a section grounded by Pokorny. He said, “We got to play the Ride with Gene. You could just sit there and feel his sound. Now I really know how to play the Ride!”
The supportive and positive feeling within the seminar was evident in various ways. You might find yourself stuffed in the back seat of a car next to Higgins on the way to the local Chipotle’s restaurant. Or, you might find yourself trying out Pokorny’s famed 6/4 York CC tuba as he graciously allowed the tuba performers to play the instrument during the seminar. Or, it could be seen in the obvious close friendships among the faculty.
When faculty members were asked why they chose to teach at the seminar in lieu of the myriad of other opportunities available to them, they all said because it was a chance to teach together, perform together, and hear each other’s recitals. Hawes said, “I’m honored to be among this quality of faculty and to perform with them.” Pokorny noted, “The worst thing is that we can’t be at each other’s master classes. I’d love to be there and see Michael work with someone, or Jeff or Randy.”
On the dimly lit stage of the Frederick Loewe Performance Hall, 19-year-old James Simulak, a junior at the University of Southern California majoring in music with a minor in video game programming, prepares to play the fifth movement from Serenade No. 12 for Solo Tuba by Vincent Persichetti. Pokorny walks over to a laptop computer, goes through a couple menus before he finds the piece, hits a key and the music is projected onto an overhead screen. Simulak’s rich tone fills the hall. When he is finished, the ten or so observers applaud and Pokorny proclaims, “Excellent.”
Pokorny then proceeds to work, more like a consultant, with Simulak on the piece making suggestions about how to shape a phrase or line, occasionally providing a demonstration. Along the way, Pokorny offers comments or observations that are more universal in nature and not tied to this particular piece. For example, he says, “When you work on a line or phrase you have to be sure it works for you, that you connect with it. If you’re not convinced, you can’t convince the listener.” But it’s no guarantee that everyone will agree with your interpretation as he adds, “I’ve been raked over the coals for what I did in the 2nd movement of the Vaughn Williams (tuba concerto) but when I go home, my basset hound still loves me.”
After his masterclass with Pokorny, Simulak is excited. Though he has studied with such esteemed teachers as Jim Self and Norman Pearson, his session with Pokorny was exceptionally useful. He says, “I got a lot of ideas. I learned to think more about the music instead of just playing the notes. It really opened my eyes to how differently everyone can play the same piece of music.”
Pokorny has long wanted Reynolds on the faculty and he finally succeeded this year though it took a bit of coaxing. He said, “I’m not very passionate about the trombone anymore. I can take it or leave it. After 22,000 services with the LA Philharmonic, it was time. I could still play. That’s the funny part. Usually you get out when you can’t play anymore. I just didn’t want to go that long…Gene called and said I could do whatever I wanted and so I said ‘Why don’t we get everyone to eschew their horns and sing a bunch of Gregorian chants.'”
L-R Jeffrey Reynolds (LA Phil Retired), Randall Hawes (Detroit Symphony/Northwestern), Sean Reusch (Presidio Brass), Gene Pokorny (Chicago Symphony), Scott Sutherland (Presidio Brass/University of Redlands), Andrew Glendening (University of Redlands), Timothy Higgins (San Francisco Symphony/Northwestern), and Michael Mulcahy (Chicago Symphony/Northwestern)
He wasn’t joking. Since retiring from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Reynolds has become a passionate advocate for the Compline, which is the last of several services that comprise the daily life in a monastery. It consists of psalms, prayers, and chants intended to offer thanks for the day and to transition to the “Great Silence” which follows until the first morning service the next day. In the United States, the Compline has had a resurgence due to Peter Hallock forming the Compline Choir at the Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle in 1956. Since then, this small, all-male group performs a Compline service every Sunday night at 9:30 p.m.
About five years ago, Reynolds heard a radio broadcast of the Compline Choir. He said, “It’s mystical…mystical. It operates not in the here and now.” Inspired by what he heard, he’s applied his considerable musical ability and organizational abilities to promoting the Compline. He’s formed and performs with four Compline choirs. Moreover, he’s arranged over 1,000 pieces for a variety of voicing which can be used in a Compline service.
And so, the seminar’s daily schedule included a listing for 9:30 p.m. on the penultimate evening of the seminar, “Memorial Chapel: Compline: ‘Act Like a Monk Night.'” Actually, in the scheme of the things for the Pokorny Seminar, this wasn’t that much out of the ordinary. Previous editions have included an astronomy night (Pokorny is an astronomy buff), a Bach Sarabande from the Fifth Cello Suite playoff between a cellist and Hawes, and an acoustics presentation by University of Redlands science faculty.
The initial reaction among performers ranged from bewilderment to trepidation (for those who hadn’t sung in an organized group since grade school) to mild annoyance (the rehearsals and performance were in the un-air conditioned Memorial Chapel which was stiflingly hot that week). But under Reynolds’s expert guidance, this group composed of the performers, some auditors, and all of the faculty produced a surprisingly good performance.
Mulcahy encapsulated the experience. “I would say it’s been an astonishingly cathartic experience…it utilizes music that is very sustained and simple and reflective. I can see why the monks chant like that because it must give them a lot of order in their psychological environment..They lead a very solitary life and so I can see how that service supports their life and their mental health too.”
The final wrap-up session took place in the Frederick Loewe Performance Hall. The faculty members sat in a line at the front of the hall facing the audience. Pokorny asked all of the performers, who were scattered throughout the hall, to move to the front rows. Pokorny, dressed in his signature Three Stooges shirt, summarized the week from his perspective: his pleasure in working with his colleagues, hearing their recitals, and singing the Compline. Mulcahy succinctly described the physical and psychological requirements to achieve success on the trombone. There were some questions and answers and at one point, Pokorny innocently set up bass trombonist Bryan Heath to demonstrate some authentic cowboy yodeling which was met by hoots and hollers.
Nobody really wanted the seminar to end but it was time to close when Reynolds summed up perhaps the most important thing experienced by everyone that week. “I have an observation. When we started on Monday I felt like it was us and them. And, now, it’s only us. Think about that.” All nodded contentedly in agreement.
Jim Hattori is a trombonist from Seattle who occasionally writes articles about music and sports. Previously, he was Government and Foundation Relations Manager for the Seattle Symphony.