CSO in Asia: Without fanfare, musicians give gifts of art and joy; see themselves richer
Report: As “citizen musicians,” Chicago Symphony players touring in Taiwan, China and South Korea perform for seriously ill children and encourage young instrumentalists to practice, practice, practice.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Photos by Todd Rosenberg
SHANGHAI—Halfway into the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Asia tour, trombonist Michael Mulcahy was reflecting on a little concert he and four colleagues played for some children back in Taipei. There had been no tuxedoes, no bright lights, no grand symphony on the music stands.
Yet, without hesitating a sixteenth note, Mulcahy declared that encounter with those kids and their parents, no more than 150 people, “the most magnificent thing that has happened to me on this trip.”
What made so powerful an impression on Mulcahy was the reaction of those children, all of them dealing with a serious illness, cancer for many—and all of them beaming with delight at the sound and indeed the touch of five brass instruments brought right into their laps at a performance just for them at the Chiang Kai-shek National Theatre.
“I wasn’t prepared for the profound experience of seeing all these parents with their children, all of them suffering from some affliction or other, and every one of them responding so enthusiastically to our music,” says Mulcahy. “I know all my colleagues would agree that we were the privileged ones.”
The up-close-and-personal concert was part of the CSO’s Citizen Musician initiative, in which members of the orchestra share their art, their wisdom and the motivational life stories in casual, usually very intimate settings. Beyond offering such personal contact regularly in Chicago, the orchestra also makes a point of taking íts campaign of connectivity on the road, wherever that road may lead.
On this Asia swing, in Taipei and Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul, CSO musicians are performing in schools, giving master classes, sometimes just participating in organized chats with youngsters about the value of music—of really playing music—throughout one’s life.
Percussionist Cynthia Yeh and French horn player Oto Carrillo drew serious attention, and lots of laughter, from music students at the American School in Taipei with their tales of how they became musicians and their confessions about sometimes wishing they didn’t have to practice. But both urged their young listeners never to stop playing, that musicianship is a gift and that its pleasures are compounded by a discipline that can enhance other aspects of one’s life.
It was a different message, however, that the five CSO brass players brought to those afflicted children from Ronald McDonald House Charities on an occasion that not just trombonist Mulcahy but also his pals, the kids and their parents all surely will remember as “magnificent.”
It was a message of sheer, wordless wonder cast in sounds of liquid gold. And the kids received it gleefully, from the hands of the musicians into their own hands. Wading into a clutch of children, French horn player David Griffin sounded a soft fanfare, then let them press the valves as he continued to blow—a horn flourish by committee.
Said Griffin later: “I would crawl on my hands and knees for the chance to do that again.”
Touching, not just listening from afar, was the order of the day. Imagine touching a T-Rex, which is just what Gene Pokorny’s huge tuba sounded like as he moseyed among the children, letting loose great bellows from that imposing hung of plumbing. The kids loved it and readily pawed and pushed at the instrument—audience participation at its best.
In something of a gift exchange, three young sisters played for their CSO visitors, a carefully shaped and studiously delivered trio for piano, violin and pint-size drum set.
When it came time for the brass quintet to play its brief program, the kids fell silent, even if they were inwardly swinging, as Mulcahy, Pokorny, Griffin, and trumpeters Christopher Martin and Tage Larsen tossed off a Bach fugue and a bit of Americana in selections from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
“One little girl came over and gave me a big hug,” Larsen recalled later. “Maybe she just wanted to say, ‘Thank you.'”
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Photo captions: Home page and top: CSO principal trumpet Christopher Martin lets a young audience member from Ronald McDonald House Charities in Taipei play a tune on his instrument. Descending: A young listener lends a hand to CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy at a special event in Taipei. The CSO quintet of, from left, Tage Larsen, trumpet; David Griffin, French horn; Gene Pokorny, tuba; Michael Mulcahy, trombone; and Christopher Martin, trumpet, played for seriously ill children from Ronald McDonald House in Taipei. The quintet entertained with music of Bach and Gershwin.