Bienen professor to premiere piece inspired by Oliver Sacks at CSO


Source: Todd Rosenberg

Chicago Symphony Orchestra trombonist and Bienen Prof. Michael Mulcahy will perform as part of a world premiere with the symphony Thursday evening.

Jennifer Hepp, Reporter


It has been 16 years since Chicago Symphony Orchestra trombonist and Bienen Prof. Michael Mulcahy has taken center stage with the orchestra. This Thursday, he will return and premiere a new work.

The piece for trombone and orchestra, titled “Five Hallucinations,” was written by Australian composer Carl Vine, who was inspired by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book “Hallucinations,” which chronicles various hallucinatory conditions he observed during his career as a neurologist.

The piece was co-commissioned by the CSO and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Mulcahy, a native of Sydney, was allowed to choose the composer and picked Vine, a fellow Sydneysider.

“There is the right balance of tension and beauty in Vine’s composition,” Mulcahy said. “The writing is not retrograde. It’s contemporary, but … it’s somewhat tonal.”

Mulcahy said he wanted a piece that was dramatic and lyrical, not “showy” — as he said many trombone concertos usually are. He said he also wanted to have input in the composition process, which is why he and Vine worked on developing the piece together for roughly 18 months.

“My fingerprints are all over it, for better or for worse,” Mulcahy said. “I was able to be very frank with him in my wishes for the piece, and I was also able to tell him when I had to have a little break in the piece.”

Mulcahy will premiere Vine’s piece Thursday night at the Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. He is later scheduled to perform the Australian premiere at the Sydney Opera House next April, he said.

The piece features five diverse movements, with no breaks in between the sections, represented by five hallucinations in Sacks’ book: “I smell the unicorn,” “The lemonade speaks,” “Mama wants some cookies,” “The doppelganger” and “Hexagons in pink.” Vine described the piece as “psychedelic.”

Vine said Mulcahy’s request for him to write him a piece came “completely out of the blue.”

“I was very surprised, but very delighted,” Vine said. “Composers around the world would generally sacrifice one of their limbs to work with the Chicago Symphony … and indeed to work with Michael, who is one of the great trombonists of the world.”

Mulcahy said although he has been practicing with a synthesized track, he is looking forward to hearing the music live. He compared premiering the piece to giving birth, saying he could not wait to “give life” to it.

Vine said working closely with Mulcahy was a “terrific” experience, given he doesn’t normally work with musicians so closely.

“[Mulcahy] managed to push me into all sorts of interesting areas musically that I hadn’t really gone before,” Vine said. “Although it was very unusual for me, it was really very exciting to have this instant feedback from a musician as fine as Michael.”

Vine, who flew into town from Sydney on Tuesday, has only three rehearsals with Mulcahy before the premiere Thursday night. Professional orchestras work very quickly, Mulcahy added.

Cristina Rocca, vice president of artistic programming at the CSO, was in charge of finding a conductor for the premiere. Rocca settled on James Gaffigan, who last conducted the CSO in 2009 and is always open to new pieces, she said.

Vine’s piece is one of nine new CSO commissions to premiere this season, Rocca said.

“I can’t wait to hear it,” Mulcahy said of the piece. “I hope that the piece sounds as great as I think it’s going to sound.”

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