Alumni Profile

Gene Pokorny ’75

Um-Pah-POW! Tuba and trains – what do they have in common? Plenty, says Gene Pokorny ’75, principal tubist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a devoted fan of steam

“locomotives. The USC Thornton School of Music graduate is passionate about both these large, heavy machines that can move people across landscapes, both spatial and emotional.
A member of the Union Pacific Railroad Historical Society and avid “railfanner,” Pokorny’s passions converged last June in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, where the CSO gave the world premiere of composer John Stevens’ Journey, a concerto for contrabass tuba with Pokorny as soloist.

Gene Pokorny toots his horn for a train Journey.

The performance marked Pokorny’s solo debut with the CSO, which he joined back in 1988, when Sir Georg Solti named him to the seat of the retiring Arnold Jacobs, a CSO legend of 44 years. The native Southern Californian is now a Windy City fixture, appearing frequently in Chicago public schools (dressed in white tie and tails) to introduce students to classical music and the tuba. Pokorny is also an active chamber player, a studio musician on film scores and a recording artist. His third solo CD, titled Big Boy, was released in February, following his Tuba Tracks (1992) and Orchestral Excerpts for Tuba (1996).
Journey was commissioned by the CSO, and Pokorny was involved from the outset, assisting in the selection of the composer. The piece, somewhat biographical, reflects Pokorny’s affection for the Union Pacific #844 and his extraordinary skill on the CSO’s famous CC-model York tubas. The work’s three movements – “Morning in the Yard,” “Midnight in the Mountains,” and “Highballing through Town” – run non-stop for 30 minutes and cover the instrument’s full range.

PLAYING ANY BRASS instrument is athletic, and Pokorny certainly has the “chops” – the physical attributes of horn playing – to handle it.
With the tuba, years of training and practice go into perfecting the control of lips and face muscles, tongue and lungs, airflow and pressure. But once you’ve mastered the technique, Pokorny says, “you forget all that and just sing a song.”
Pokorny hasn’t forgotten his mentors, though – particularly J. Tommy Johnson ’56, his principal teacher at the USC Thornton School in the early 1970s; the late Robert Marsteller, who taught his brass ensemble class at USC; and Daniel Lewis, retired director of the USC Symphony.
Nor have his mentors forgotten Pokorny. Jeffrey Reynolds, now bass trombonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was in the audience at the world premiere, as was Johnson, who remains on the USC Thornton School faculty. Several fellow Trojans were also on stage. CSO’s resident conductor William Eddins ’92, who studied conducting with Daniel Lewis at USC, was at the podium. And violist Richard Ferrin DMA ’73 sat in the string section.

– Carolyn S. Ellis

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