Gene Pokorny Reinvigorates the Vaughan Williams

ImageLast week, Gene Pokorny, principal tubist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performed the Concerto for Bass Tuba by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In fact, he performed it on four separate concerts; Tuesday, May 15th, Wednesday May 16th, Thursday May 17th, and Saturday May 19th.

Due to the disruption of traffic and security for the NATO Summit in Chicago, the CSO’s Saturday performance took place at the Wentz Concert Hall on the campus of North Central College in Naperville, IL. Getting to hear the CSO is a rare treat for me, although it shouldn’t be, as I live four hours from Chicago. But, getting to hear the Vaughan Williams played by Gene Pokorny – on his CC Contrabass Tuba is possibly a once in a lifetime occurrence.

As luck would have it, the only performance of the four that I could have possibly attended was Saturday’s. I was able to get a seat in the front row, just a few feet from the conductor and where Mr. Pokorny would sit for the concerto. Predictably, it was a fantastic performance, but I was not prepared for how overwhelming and jaw-dropping the concert would be. The Chicago Symphony is arguably one of the finest orchestras in the world, and the conductor for the series, Jaap van Zweden gave a brilliant and fiery performance.

The program commenced with Shostakovich’s moving Chamber Symphony for strings, the Vaughan Williams and on the second half, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. To sit that close to such virtuosic ensemble playing is exhillarating, and when Gene Pokorny took his place in front of me, I felt as if I was about to be launched into outer-space.

The Wentz Concert Hall is an acoustical work of art. Designed by the Talaske Group, and built in 2008, this 617-seat hall looks as gorgeous as it sounds. Since the stage is relatively low, and I was seated in Row A, I almost felt as if I were onstage. My eyeline was level with the principal cellists shins. After the concert, I was even able to grab one of the cellists broken bow hairs he discarded onto the stage floor.

There were several remarkable aspects of Mr. Pokorny’s performance, not the least of which was the fact that he played on the CSO’s large, York CC Contrabass Tuba. He remarked in this interview that he only recently decided to use the York. Although it is the instrument he uses 99% of the time in the orchestra, most performers opt to play on a Basstuba in F or E-flat. Unsurprisingly, his tone was dark, controlled, and rich – but it was never overly loud or so soft that it was unclear. For a man capable of such volume in the context of the entire brass section, Pokorny showed incredible sensitivity and tenderness. Beyond all of this, however, his unique and innovative interpretation to the concerto was what really blew my mind.

Even though all of us tuba players have studied and listened to this work our entire lives, Gene was able to inject a fresh and daring approach to the work. He often used rubato, especially at the very beginning of entrances and endings of phrases. He hinted in his interview that he would be making some octave changes, but I only expected that he would take some of the higher passages down an octave to make them more “user-friendly” on the contrabass tuba. Not only did he generally play the higher octave, but, in some cases, played a few measures up a written octave from the original! On his cadenzas, he actually deviated from the written cadenzas – a tradition generally reserved for classical horn and trumpet concertos. They were tasteful, impressive, and appropriate – and above all patient. He took advantage of the silence, allowed the high notes to resonate in the beautiful hall, and made everyone take notice.

What often separates great brass players from good brass players is the ability to control tone, pitch and response in the softest passages. Pokorny, as I mentioned before, never overplayed a note and always kept a perfect balance between his own sound and the orchestra’s, often fading into the texture when releasing for an orchestral passage. Even the brass section – famous for their ability to play louder than any other – tastefully and artistically executed the most turbulent of entrances.

If they are not already planning on doing so in the near future, the Chicago Symphony should plan on recording this amazing interpretation and preserving it for posterity. It was truly an inspirational and miraculous performance.

UPDATE:
This is an excerpt from a review by Lawrence A. Johnson of the Chicago Classical Review:

The evening’s centerpiece was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto. Not played by the orchestra in 34 years, it offered a rare solo opportunity for CSO tubist Gene Pokorny. A member of the orchestra since 1989, Pokorny has long provided yeoman duty in a low-profile role, with an instrument whose presence is felt as often as it is heard.

The 12-minute concerto showcases the tuba’s bumptious and lyrical elements and Pokorny conveyed both delightfully, from his rounded, subterranean low notes to his jazz-like swagger in the cadenza and nimble agility in the finale. The central Romanza is one of VW’s most heart-easing inspirations — a virtual emblem of the English pastoral school— and Pokorny’s playing was as nuanced and expressive as any top-flight violinist or opera singer. The soloist received a hearty, well-deserved ovation from his colleagues as well as the audience. (And any musician who puts in his official bio that he is a card-carrying member of the Three Stooges Fan Club deserves applause.)

 

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