In “Deliverance,” it was dueling banjos. Banjos fast and furious, with that country feel.
In Sunday’s “America the Tubaful” concert, it was — you guessed it — dueling tubas. Tubas big and fat sounding, with a comedic vibe.
Playing a tuba-fied version of the 1972 film’s most famous scene was how Gene Pokorny made his big entrance in the tuba-filled, sold-out Laguna Concert Band performance at the Laguna Playhouse.
The principal tuba for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — one of America’s finest tuba players in one of America’s finest orchestras — played on his tuba snippets reminiscent of the film’s banjo duet, to which fellow tuba player Charlie Warren responded.
And off they went.
When it was over, Pokorny and Warren played a Vivaldi concerto arranged for two tubas. They were accompanied by the Laguna Concert Band, a local institution that’s achieved considerable growth and stature since forming in 1998.
Fellow tuba player Bob Joles, who’s also a well-established voice-over actor in Hollywood, kidded that he was going to give “a brief lecture” about Pokorny from “several facts” he’s been gathering. He then presented a thick binder, titled “Fun Facts About Gene,” as comedic proof of his research and talked for a few minutes about his colleague.
Pokorny grew up in Southern California — Downey, specifically — and some of his earliest music-making was taking up the clarinet in grammar school. Today, Pokorny calls it the “agony stick,” Joles said to laughter in the audience.
Eventually Pokorny fell in love with the tuba, a “large, unwieldy instrument,” which he mastered enough to win a seat in the Israel Philharmonic. Pokorny then played for other orchestras before settling down in his current symphonic seat in Chicago, the “Miami of Canada,” Joles said.
After Joles’ speech about Pokorny, the two of them and Warren played an arrangement of “Bugler’s Holiday,” renamed “Tubaler’s Holiday.”
Other selections of the concert included band arrangements of “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copland, “A Disney Celebration” arranged by Joles and a medley of tunes by George M. Cohan played by a four-person saxophone ensemble.
The concert ended with Pokorny playing “Blue Bells of Scotland.” Though the traditional folk tune’s arrangement is best known as being an extremely difficult and technically demanding piece for solo trombone, Pokorny pulled it off on his tuba, much to the delight of the audience.
Band President Matt Wood, a Laguna native who runs Len Wood’s Indian Territory on North Coast Highway, said rehearsals for Sunday’s concert began at the end of December after the holiday season. He added that 76 musicians, including the guest artists, played that afternoon.
“What you’re hearing is the maturation and growth of a community band before your eyes,” Wood said. “Here we’ve grown in a very short period of time. It’s a real testimony to the music directors, the conductors’ focus and the desire of the core of the band to get better.”
Wood later added via email: “To get an ‘A-list’ player such as Gene was a blessing. The band not only grew from the experience, for limited rehearsals and complexities of the pieces demanded growth, but we collectively realized that not only can the LCB ‘put on a show,’ we understand that the best is yet to come.”
Pokorny was a student of Ed Peterson, one of the Laguna Concert Band’s directors, at Warren High School in Downey some 40 years ago. The two have kept in touch over the years and, fortunately for Laguna Beach, Pokorny was able to fit in the concert with his old director’s band amid his busy Chicago Symphony touring schedule.
Pokorny was busy indeed. The Friday before, the Chicago Symphony played in Costa Mesa. On Saturday, the Chicago brass section played at the University of Redlands — where Pokorny studied before finishing his undergraduate work at USC — before joining the rest of the orchestra for a concert that night in Palm Desert.
After Sunday’s concert, Pokorny raced down to San Diego to play yet another concert. Before doing so, he set aside a few minutes to talk with the Coastline Pilot.
“The concert was a gas. I had fun,” he said. “It gave me a good chance to get together with my old pal Ed and got me a chance to work with Charlie Warren, who I’ve known for a long time, and Bob Joles, who I’ve known since the mid-1980s. It was a good celebration.”
And what of he, Warren and Joles grandstanding to play the high-pitched piccolo part at the end of “Star Spangled Banner”?
“There’s kind of a conspiracy of tuba players to do that.”