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47 Wonderful Years In the Chicago Symphony, A Conversation with Dale Clevenger

James T. Rohner | August 2013

    Those of us at The Instrumentalist have had a long and affectionate relationship with Dale Clevenger, long-time principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Besides a feature interview in the May 1992 issue, he wrote the overview of 50 years of horn articles for the 50th Anniversary issue of this magazine in August 1995. He and wife Alice write the first chapter for the series of articles and book First Lessons on Each Instrument. This June marked his final appearance with the Chicago Symphony after 47 years as principal hornist, a position he first held at age 25. For decades he was a mainstay of the world-renown brass section that included Bud Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, and Jay Friedman, each of whom performed on the still popular 1968 recording The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli by members of the Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia brass sections. His reflections on these years follow.

What led up to your joining the Chicago Symphony?
    I had no serious thoughts about playing in the Chicago Symphony until after college, when I placed well in several auditions. However, I failed to win a position in eight or nine auditions for other orchestras before I played in Chicago.
    Nobody made it after the first round of auditions, nobody made it, but I was invited back. I later learned that I had a little assistance from Alfred Wallenstein, one of the guest conductors, who said to then-conductor Jean Martinon, “You need to listen to this young man, and if he has already played for you, you need to listen closer.” In addition, Leopold Stokowski wrote a letter of recommendation. I don’t know where it is, but I would love to have that letter.
    In January 1966 I played a second audition and was invited to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on February 6th at age 251⁄2. Those were indescribable moments, the happiest times of my life because I knew that I would be doing something I had dreamed about since I began playing the horn, and especially since high school.
    The high school lunch room was underneath the auditorium, and behind the lunch room was the band room. Most band members ate their lunches there and listened to recordings of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. Our band director, A.R. Casavant, encouraged this, and I had the sound of the Chicago Symphony firmly in my head long before I ever got out of high school.

How difficult was it to be a section leader in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 25 1⁄2?
    Among the three older people in the section was Frank Brouk, who occasionally sat on my left and played assistant to me. He had one of the most beautiful horn sounds I have ever heard, and I set out to emulate him. He was also a wonderful person to play with and welcomed me warmly. So did the others in the section, but I realized rather quickly that I could not and should not say anything to the rest of the section until I had passed my probation period and proven myself. For a while I led only by example, not by words, and played my very best.
    Six months into my first year we had already made many recordings and gone on tours, and things were going well. One night at Ravinia I had dinner with Dick Oldberg, the third hornist, who said, “Dale, I want you to know that if you want me to do anything differently, you have only to tell me.” I asked if I could use him as a foil or a springboard. Instead of saying anything to the older men in the section I could get your attention and ask you to try things or explain what I was trying to do. I worked out a system of communication this way and never suggested anything directly to the veterans about musical matters. Everyone in the horn section was cordial, but when I thought something could be better or different, I spoke to Oldberg, and it worked out quite well.
    Eventually the older men in the section realized I was neither a threat nor an ogre who would put them down or question their technique or musicality. We got along just fine, and I rarely had to exercise that option but tried to lead by example.

What are some of your most poignant memories?
    There were so many that I could fill a small book. On tour we performed Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, and Percussion 23 times before recording it. When Georg Solti came, the first recording we made with him was Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and the second was Mahler’s Fifth. Arnold Jacobs came up to me midway through recording the Fifth and said, “Dale, this is going to make you famous.” Solti’s wife said I was going to be a living legend. Such statements should be taken as compliments, but if you let your head swell and something goes wrong, even for just one concert, it reflects poorly. I appreciated the kind words, but I realized there were hundreds more performances to go.
    Our performance of Mahler’s Fifth in New York under Solti had an ovation time of over 20 minutes. Most ovations last between two and four minutes, but we were kept standing on the stage and saw no sign of the applause stopping; no one in the audience left. We were not going to play an encore because you don’t do that after Mahler 5. Solti just kept walking out and introducing everybody again and again. I have never experienced anything like that before or since.
    We had many wonderful concerts with Solti in various parts of the world. We took Mahler 5 on tour; I have played the piece well over 100 times in performance. I do not wish to diminish Orchestra Hall performances, but many times, our tour concerts were even more spectacular, because the orchestra would rise to an unbelievable level.
I am asked about memorable concerts frequently, and there is no way that I could list them all. If I went back over all the programs and where we were on tour, I know the list would include many with Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, and Daniel Barenboim. Our performance of Tristan and Isolde with Barenboim in New York was incredible, and when we played the Mozart-Da Ponte Operas (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte) with Barenboim at Orchestra Hall, it was pure joy. That is one of the reasons all of us play in an orchestra, to give people joy. You play your best and give your musical personality to the world. When people really appreciate this, it is fantastic.

Who is your favorite composer to play?
    Being a horn player, I have always enjoyed playing the Romantic composers: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, and Wagner, but I also love playing French music and Mozart. Often the answer to that question is whomever I am playing at the moment.
    I love Mozart and am just amazed at his genius. It is difficult music to play because it is so transparent. Mahler has some very thick orchestration, and there are a lot of things going on that the audience might miss, but that is impossible with Mozart. You hear everything. The same is true for Brahms. I am sorry Brahms did not write 14 more symphonies.
    We who are fortunate enough to play in a big orchestra that can play anything in a wide range of repertoire are the luckiest musicians in the world. When playing with colleagues who play at a high level all the time, it is extremely rare for something to be wrong. I remember Solti saying to the recording engineers, “They can play 20 minutes and never make a mistake.”

What are the conducting traits you most admire?
    It is ideal when conductors are fine musicians themselves, either by having been players in an orchestra or fine soloists. The depth of knowledge of each conductor is also important. A good conductor should know the piece and composer extremely well and be able to convey that with his whole being. The greatest conducting technique in the world is less important than knowledge and musicianship, but having good technique makes everything that much better. A conductor like Guilini never conducted for the audience, it was always for the music and the orchestra.
    There are some conductors who are absolute geniuses on the instrument they play, the way they conduct, what they know about music, and how they think about music. Barenboim was like that. Solti was a great musician. We found out how great he was when he started studying the piano after 35 years of not playing. He was a wonderful pianist.
    I have been lucky enough to have such experiences as playing The Three-Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla under Ernest Ansermet, who premiered the work in 1919. He knew the work like nobody else did because he knew the composer. Mstislav Rostropovich was a friend of Dmitri Shostakovich; he had stories to tell about what was going on at the time and strong ideas about the music because of that. William Steinberg, who conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, worked with Arturo Toscanini. The influence and the knowledge of these people in the past comes down to us today.

What prompted your decision to leave the orchestra this year?
    Many professional musicians set a time when they will retire, such as after 30 years. In the last six to twelve months of their playing, they seem eager to go. This never happened to me. Ultimately, no one can physically play forever, so eventually a decision must be made, and when the time comes, it is not always black and white. It certainly wasn’t for me. I had noticed some things about my playing and my body, which hinted that retirement time was looming, but I am stubborn enough to figure out what is wrong and try to fix the problems. I wanted to come back and play the way I did 20 years ago. If you can do that, things can get better, and for me they have. I can do things now I could not do two years ago.
    I went through a down time in my playing, and, as I have done many times in my career, I went back to the basics of playing. In doing so I discovered some things about myself, playing the horn, teaching, and the basics of performance that will help not only my students but maybe some of my colleagues who will eventually go through the same thing.
While this was going on I had also been teaching at Indiana University as an adjunct professor. This past year the dean called me in to say he wanted me there full time. The combination of playing struggles, the invitation to teach full time, and my late wife Alice’s illness and passing two years ago led me to ask how much longer I wanted to play. Norm Schweikert, former second horn, is a horn historian. As far as he can tell, no solo hornist has ever played as long as I did in the same orchestra.
    In February I decided it was time to retire. I had remarried and had many good things to look forward to. Three conservatories in Italy wanted me to teach there, and I received invitations to conduct in more places. On June 18 I conducted in Barcelona, and in a year I will conduct in Madrid. There are many opportunities. Since I reached the decision to retire, my playing is getting better, but that does not mean I would change my mind. Sooner or later I would be back in the same situation and would again ask myself if it is time. However, I don’t want other people to ask that question for me, and would rather make the decision myself.

What is the Chicago brass sound, and how did it come about?
    The Chicago brass sound is a compilation of time, of people who were extremely excellent players, and of sound, but the two people who sealed that were Adolph Herseth and Arnold Jacobs. On the top and the bottom they set an example that has never been set before or since by two people at the same time. They are the primary reason the Chicago Symphony sounds the way it does. Everybody who came in and played in the middle of them imitated them. When playing with them, you realized quickly that they set a fantastic example to emulate.
    The sound has continued after their passing, but Herseth was the type of person who comes along only once every 500 years. I am lucky to have played with him, and we are all lucky to have heard him. There are many recordings to back that up. I made more than 650 recordings, and I know Herseth made more than that. The documents are there, and people can listen if they are willing.
    I often wonder what it is about music that affects us so. The sound of notes together in a concert can make us laugh, cry, or feel nostalgia. It affects everybody in some way, and the more you know about it, the more it can affect you. It was the answer to a dream and a series of prayers to be able to have played on this level and make music and give so much joy to myself, my colleagues, and audiences around the world. There is no other art form like music, and I got to do it for nearly 50 years in one of the world’s greatest orchestras.