Like the big bad wolf, the voice on the phone boomed, “What is there to talk about? I’m just a tuba player forgodsakes!” When Gene Pokorny, who fills the Arnold Jacobs Principal Tuba Chair in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was asked for an interview, he didn’t mince words. In fact, nothing this Oak Park musician does or loves comes in miniature portions. Pokorny thinks big and, ever since his childhood years near Los Angeles in Downey, Calif., Pokorny has been playing with big toys.
His big suggestion for breakfast one morning on the newly-denuded Marion Street mall was a five-egg omelet. And our discussion focused on super-sized themes. For one, Pokorny has a big career, playing a big toy, pumping a steady stream of air into a shiny, 30-foot, Lego-like labyrinth of brass pipe with valves.
Weighing in at around 30 pounds, the tuba, known better to some through its cousin, the euphonium, is a relative late-comer in the brass family. In 1722, nearly a century before the modern tuba was invented, the French courtier and theoreticien Rameau coined the term “fundamental bass,” claiming the bass line governed the flow of music from one chord to the next. Anyone who plays electric bass in a rock band or double bass in a combo knows the trajectory of western music has proven the old Frenchman right. Although anyone might overlook the fellow in the back row hiding behind one of the largest instruments on stage, Pokorny’s low notes keep the whole band on track.
American band director and composer John Philip Sousa immortalized the tuba and became the namesake for the gleaming serpentine Sousaphone that towers above the ranks of many a marching band. But Pokorny takes the tuba much more seriously than might be expected for an “oom-pah” king. In the space of one recent week, this world-renowned player soloed in the ineptly named, but endearing “Tubby the Tuba” with the Buffalo Grove Symphonic Band, rehearsed “Pines of Rome” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and prepared for a solo performance of Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Bass Tuba, including its two brilliant cadenzas, with the UIC Concert Band.
Pokorny’s stature among orchestral musicians blows the comic oom-pah stigma to bits. Sure, it takes talent to make a polka rock, and with his Bohemian heritage, Pokorny is no stranger to the “oom” in oom-pah. But humor is only a surface level veneer, and this man is all about a deep, well-grounded musical foundation. He really sees as his life’s calling as functioning like a basement. Nothing glamorous about the rafters and pillars and pilings, but those are what hold up the place, for goodness sake.
“Playing tuba is all about balance,” he explains in a more reflective mood. “Every note I play has to provide the right presence so everyone else can anchor down on top of it.”
His mission in rehearsal is to match his sound with those of dozens of other players in the orchestra, whether a few are playing softly or the whole crew is going gangbusters. Pokorny is so serious about catching the perfect sound that when he set out on a professional recording project in the Chicago area, he traveled to about 30 churches and concert halls, just blowing notes and listening to the room speak back to him. The two spaces that passed the test were nearby St. Luke Roman Catholic Church in River Forest and Christ Lutheran in Oak Park (607 Harvard St.), where Pokorny recorded “Orchestral Excerpts for Tuba” and portions of “Big Boy,” both on the Summit label.
Porky and Beth
Pokorny has been the one-man tuba section for some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Esa-Pekka Salonen in L.A., Sir George Solti in Chicago, and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin. Otherwise unassuming and remarkably modest, he counteracts his gutsy role as Atlas, the heavy lifter, with the grace of an Orpheus. He has a lifetime dream of wooing people with the tuba, an instrument much less delicate than Orpheus’ legendary harp. He wants “to sound as smooth on the tuba as Wynton Marsalis sounds on the trumpet.”
In 1989, Pokorny assumed the prestigious tuba chair in Chicago, but Los Angeles called him in 1992 to fill the same post back west. After one year on his home turf, he opted to leave the carefree musical environment in L.A., “where the weather supports human life in the winter,” and jumped into the lion’s den of demanding performances, merciless cold snaps, and the hectic schedule in Chicago. Part of the draw eastward was a woman with talents both corporate and musical, who later formed a twosome as Pokorny’s tuba-playing wife. The couple sometimes call themselves “Porky and Beth,” with all due respect to Gershwin’s opera.
Hearing Pokorny play with the CSO inspired UIC band director Gene Collerd to sign him up as soloist for their spring concert. Collerd got more than he bargained for in the deal. Pokorny threw in an extra rehearsal of his demanding solo just for fun and then asked humbly if he might play along with the band’s brass section for the rest of the concert. Collerd, though fearful that a big-time player might overpower his student musicians, went ahead with the idea.
“I needn’t have worried,” he said. “He knew how to fit right in along with us, without intimidating anyone, and he complemented the woodwinds so nicely. Even though he’s a world expert on breathing and relaxation in demand all over, Gene is the most genial and generous person you could imagine. He lives out what music should be all about-having fun while you’re making it.”
With finesse and feeling that seem surprising for such a clunky instrument, Pokorny has performed and recorded numerous solo works that show off both the surprisingly mellifluous and the brashly energetic sides of the tuba. At Symphony Center, he premiered “Journey,” a concerto for contrabass tuba, commissioned just for him by the CSO from composer John Stevens in 2000. Another Stevens premiere, “Monument,” in honor of Pokorny’s L.A. mentor, Tommy Johnson, is in the works. The Vaughan Williams concerto that was so successful at UIC is his next recording project.
“I hadn’t played this concerto in 20 years,” he noted, “and just this spring I had two opportunities to play it.”
In March, he revived it at the University of Redlands, his quasi-alma mater. After only two years in school, he “defected” to the University of Southern California. But that didn’t tarnish his standing-the Redlands performance was part of a ceremony to award Pokorny an honorary doctorate.
“They hooded me and the whole bit,” he recalled, “even though I left 34 years ago with a library book.” He confessed before the large gathering of childhood friends and musical colleagues that the interest on the fine “was collecting in a wheelbarrow in my backyard.”
But there’s more to Pokorny than meets the ear. Though he haunts the world’s gilded concert halls and stuffy practice rooms, his real love is located on the vast open spaces near Cheyenne, Wyoming at a dusty stomping ground for old-time steam engine enthusiasts.
“It’s mecca,” he sighs wistfully. His blue and white Union Pacific cap spills the secret: “I love taking my tuba and sitting out under an endless blue sky by the train track playing. When another locomotive comes by, I’ll put the horn down and stand at attention. The mechanics who care for these old beauties are like zookeepers-they turn these big hunks of metal into living beings, all with just a burst of steam. It’s almost like Frankenstein roaring to life.”
Which is akin to what happens to Pokorny’s tuba-only with a burst of air and much happier results.
How did this jocular railroad buff match up with the tuba in the first place?
“I wasn’t really attracted to the tuba because of its size or its color,” he recalls. He played clarinet in the junior high band and still trades the tuba for the third clarinet chair in Mt. Prospect’s annual Do-It-Yourself Sousa Extravaganza. Growing up in a home where the head of the house was a professional trumpeter, Pokorny gave his parents credit for their incredible generosity with music lessons, instruments, summer camps and finding the best teachers. When the tuba chair opened up, the band director pegged Pokorny as the best candidate. The lure for a gullible teenager in Southern California was not a hefty hunk of shiny brass, but having a seat on the back row, “closer to the door than anyone else, so I could make the fastest escape and be first in line for the Ding Dongs at snack time.”
The Ding Dongs apparently did their job, as playing tuba gave Pokorny the opportunity to meet astronaut Alan Shepard and others who came to the Rockwell manufacturing plant in Downey. “I met them,” he recalls, “because the high school bands were often asked to come and play when they were in town.” And the impressionable boy, who once dreamed of becoming an astronaut, never forgot the experience of seeing behemoth space rockets at the local factory.
Now a part of Pokorny’s job is to kindle the current generation’s interest in the biggest chair in the band. Each year for the Chicago Symphonython, he donates a visit to a local school where he shows off the tools of his trade. “I love working with kids who can read music, and I get them to try playing a tuba excerpt from a film.” Pokorny knows about film music firsthand, having done time in a few Hollywood studios, recording short but significant tracks in movies like Jurassic Park and The Fugitive.
“The students don’t know what they’re playing … and then I show them a segment from Tigger where they can hear the music they just learned. It really turns them on to see what it’s like to play in a film.”
From bass to basset hounds
Pokorny has launched an enviable world-class career, not as an astronaut, but making sounds that most people can only get by turning up the woofers on their stereos. At home in Oak Park, he is busy minding another kind of woofer-a harem of beloved basset hounds. He kids that he’s waiting for his Oak Park taxes to go down so he can foot the bill for canine school.
Just before his recent performance at UIC, the 6-foot, tuxedo-clad Hercules winked and said, “If I got hit by a bus tonight, I would die happy. I just love living, doing what I like to do.”