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February 1990 The Chicago Brass Sound, By Dale Clevenger and Jay Friedman

As told to Harvey Phillips

Harvey Phillips: For most of the world’s brass players the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brass section sets the standard, and the Chicago Sound is a term one hears often. How do you feel this came about and what is it like to be part of it?
   Dale Clevenger: Well, it’s wonderful to be part of it. It’s indescribable. If I think about it for more than two minutes, I still can’t believe I’m here. Having said that, to answer the first part of your question, it gets that way after a lot of years of things just falling into place.
   I’m not sure that anybody within our brass section consciously says, “Aha, there is a Chicago sound and that’s what I must match.” I like to think that there are many different Chicago Symphony brass sounds, depending on what we’re playing, who the conductor is, and what they ask for. I certainly don’t play with one sound. I know you don’t mean one sound but a generalized kind of sound that is instantly recognizable as the Chicago Symphony. If I had to say in one word why it is that way, it would be [Adolph] Herseth. That’s the long and short of it right there.
   It’s not that he has an idea of himself, “I am the Chicago sound.” He plays the way he plays. The orchestra is lucky that 40 years ago or whenever he came, that he came. His musical and artistic standards were the spearhead of a brass concept, and at 68 years old he is still doing it, which is incredible in and of itself. As to how the rest of us fit in, I just try to play as beautifully and as excellently as I can, with as many different kinds of tone qualities I can muster. I try to please the conductors I respect, and I try to please myself and my colleagues.
   The sound is a combination of players: Herseth and Jay, and before I came it was Farkas. With Herseth on the top and Arnold Jacobs on the bottom, it was just a combination of things that caused a unique and recognizable sound, a tone quality, to blossom. There were changes, some subtle and some not so subtle, throughout the brass section. We just try to maintain already high standards and go further if we possibly can.
   We don’t let up, we keep trying and striving. There are dips in all of our personal lives for one reason or the other, either personally or technically, or musically, and we get momentarily burned out or sick of music. Then some great player comes in and sparks everybody. I’m watching it happen now in the trombone section and the tuba section. You can quote me categorically, there will not be one orchestra in the world that will have a better low brass section than ours once we are all here, with Mike Mulcahy [trombone] and Gene Pokorny [tuba].
   In that phenomenal brass section the quality will be maintained, and I think will be better for a whole bunch of reasons I’m not sure should be published. People are going to get along better, they are going to speak to each other. The crybabies and the people who don’t talk to each other are gone. How they played is one thing; they played wonderfully. People who talk to each other, who still enjoy music, who love music, and want to work together and be part of a great orchestra and have a great brass section, are here now in the lower brass section.

   Phillips: So there is always a motivator that helps sound evolve and then it is maintained?
   Clevenger: It may or may not be the conductor. I don’t ever think it’s been the conductor, per se.

   Phillips:How much change takes place within the orchestra? I know from my own experience that every time there was a personnel change in an orchestra or chamber ensemble we made adjustments.
   Clevenger: It’s already noticeably better in the trombone and tuba sections. They’re going to live with each other for a while and will have to do what we did in the horn section when some of the older ones left. If I wanted somebody in my section to do something a little differently, I would have to figure out some tactful way to get that changed. That’s my job, and I know Herseth, Jay, and I all try to hold up the highest possible standards for ourselves, our section, and the whole brass section.

    Phillips: So you approach things positively as changes take place?
   Clevenger: We try very hard, and it’s a process. It didn’t stop when Herseth got in the orchestra; it blossomed. It didn’t get worse when Farkas left, and it didn’t get worse when Jacobs left. It’s a little different and we will miss him a lot, but nobody is indispensable, with the possible exception of Herseth. I simply don’t know how he will ever be replaced.
   Friedman: I don’t know either.
   Clevenger: The fact is that nobody is indispensable. Somebody will come in and play pretty well, or very well, or almost as well; and they’ll be compared to him as I was with Farkas for even four or five seasons after he left. There were three other solo horn players between Farkas and me and still the comparison was made. I looked through the personnel on the tour, and there are 35 people in this orchestra now who were here before I was. It would be fewer with Jay because he was here two or three years before I came, so we’re talking about 25 guys who played with Reiner.

   Phillips: Speaking of that, how much do you feel conductors influence the color of sound of the brass?
   Clevenger: If he’s the boss, he can affect it very much. If he is here long enough, is respected highly enough, and has definite ideas about what he wants with the brass sound, whether people like it or not the orchestra is going to develop a slightly different sound. With music director designate [Daniel] Barenboim, change is inevitable because he conducts differently, he moves differently. The strings play differently and he doesn’t want the brass as loud as Solti did. Just today at the first rehearsal we already experimented with different seating. I wasn’t surprised at all that he’s got 1 Vi years before he is the boss.

   Phillips: Jay, are there words you would use in describing the Chicago brass sound as compared with other orchestra brass sections around the world?
   Friedman: I think the style is so well established here and the traditions are so strong that when a new person comes in he is immediately swept up by the undercurrent that is already there. It would be hard not to be swept up in it. I think it is more than just sound: there is a tradition of professional pride here that you always want to play your best. Even if it is in a youth concert or for the worst conductor you can imagine, there is a strong sense of professionalism here. I haven’t heard this about other orchestras, where some brass sections have a lackadaisical attitude to just play the notes. That has never been the case here. Here everybody wants to sound their best because they know that everybody is listening.

   Phillips: What words would you use to describe the Chicago brass sound?
   Friedman: Very energetic, exciting, intense, sustained, lively, a lot of air moving through the horn, a live sound; not a dead sound that you hear in many European and American brass sections. When they play loudly the sound is dead; when they play softly the sound is dead. It never goes dead here; it is always live.
   Clevenger: Lots of core to the tone.

   Phillips: I know that some orchestras are notorious for the way they treat guest conductors. What is the attitude of the brass section to a guest conductor when he comes?
   Friedman: When we have a guest conductor who doesn’t make a strong impression on us or doesn’t make any impression on us, we are left to our own devices and tradition takes over. It’s still there and we play as excitingly as if he weren’t there. We don’t get boring just because the conductor has nothing to say. The Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony was a perfect example this year. We had this conductor who was one of the most nothing people we’ve ever had; he didn’t say a word at all. It was so exciting because the whole band got cranked up and played. We knew the tradition and just swept him along. We didn’t get dull and boring because he had nothing to say.

   Phillips: As these changes take place in the brass section, I’m sure that not only the brass section notices them.
   Clevenger: Everybody notices.
   Friedman: The people who listen notice, and there are people in the orchestra who never listen. They have no idea whether it sounds good or sounds bad, but the people that do listen all notice it.
   Clevenger: It is impossible for most musicians, for brass players in 98% of the orchestras in the world, to know what it is like to play with somebody like Herseth, who has standards that are so high. You can’t even talk about it to them; they don’t even know what you are talking about. They talk about their wonderful trumpet player or their brass section. They can’t even know what it is like to hear rehearsal after rehearsal, concert after concert, year after year, with the highest possible standards; it feeds out to everybody. It makes me want to keep my standards high and Jay his section; it filters into the woodwind section, which has extremely high standards. Hopefully, it filters into the string section; they have a different problem because they grow up thinking they are going to be soloists and they’re not, so they take the second best choice of playing with an orchestra. They don’t realize that they are playing in one of the best orchestras in the world, the best, a thing of pride and privilege to do it. We have standards of excellence going on around us by lots of people, not just the principals.

   Phillips: Are there certain recordings that you feel best illustrate the sound of the brass section?
   Friedman: Not anything that’s been done in the last 15 years.  
   Clevenger: It’s not really true what he says, but almost. If you consider all the variables we have to deal with in recordings, it’s a miracle that we sound really good on any of these recordings. When we record in Orchestra Hall, they build out the stage and the hall is empty. It sounds different when the orchestra is spread out further. They usually separate the brass section; sometimes they will let us stay fairly close together, but changing the seating is still difficult. We have at least half a dozen different conductors and half a dozen different companies and they each bring their own crew.

   Phillips: Do you think it would be better if the symphony had its own recording crew all the time?
   Clevenger: We do recording for radio broadcasts, but they don’t ask them for one iota of information.
   Friedman: That’s right, and they get a better sound than the records and better than if you are sitting in the hall. The recording companies don’t want to have anything to do with that because they can’t manipulate that sound, and they want a manipulated sound. They want a phony sound.
   Clevenger: If you’re talking about a recorded live performance, you have at least maintained the seating relationship; but as soon as you start changing that, then you have a recording studio performance. Sometimes they put microphones behind us, but nobody ever listens to French horns from behind us. “Well, we wanted to sweeten it just a little bit, but we’re not going to use very much,” they say. Later, when you hear a raspy sound in the recording, you wonder what it is. “Oh, that’s the microphone that was behind us.” The people in the gallery don’t listen to us that way.
   When you change the hall where we record, you’ve got a major variable. You change companies, that’s two; you change conductors, that’s three. The only constant is the orchestra itself, and even it gets spread around. It’s frustrating. It’s nice to make the money, but it is very hard to do. Instead of a performance where you go straight through, you take what you get, and that’s what we’re doing more and more with Solti. He finally convinced this company that there is merit in it, so we will record six performances of the Bruckner Eighth; from that they’ll get a recording. It’s not going to sound exactly like a studio recording, but it will be good.
   We will record things with Neeme Jarvi that way. It’s faster and more efficient, and it’s a live performance. It is different than playing the Beethoven Seventh or the Brahms violin concerto’s first movement four times and the second movement seven times. By the seventh time it is not a performance. You’re hanging on for dear life just to get through. It is all you can do to muster enough strength to play it, much less the imagination, flair, and inspiration to play a great performance. Yet that’s what they want. In a very real way, studio recordings are phony; everybody knows that.
   Friedman: Especially coming from this orchestra.
   Clevenger: The proof of it is how many times we’ve heard, “The orchestra sounds so much better live than it does on a record.” I can’t tell you how many times we hear that. Most orchestras don’t sound better live, they sound worse, which means that they record it over and over enough times that they can fix every bar.
   Friedman: In Europe they know how to enhance the sound, but here they tear it down. We sound much warmer and richer live than we do on records. The sound of European orchestras on records is so warm and beautifully blended that if you hear them live you can’t believe it is the same orchestra. We’re probably the only orchestra in the world that sounds worse on records than we do live.
   Clevenger: If somebody thinks it’s good on records, then we’re lucky.

   Phillips: Are there works that haven’t been recorded that under ideal conditions you would most like to have the orchestra record?
   Clevenger: I don’t know if we’re supposed to tell what they are going to do, but they’ve got big plans with Barenboim. It’s no secret that these include the Brahms symphonies and other Brahms works.

   Phillips: Will they be done under the same conditions that you described, breaking up the orchestra?
   Clevenger: Curiously enough, Barenboim takes recordings less seriously: he likes to get in as much of a performance as possible. I suspect he would go more for live performance recordings and use a studio to patch up.
   Friedman: I would like to record a lot of Dvorak that we never do, such as the Slavonic Dances; I think that would be fantastic. We ought to record Ma Vlast, although the old Kubelik recording is probably my favorite Chicago Symphony recording of all time. The sound is better than what we get today.

   Phillips: One of the most exciting recordings 1 ever heard was the old Kubelik recording of Pictures.
   Friedman: Oh, that is phenomenal; those recordings still sound great. There’s a little hiss on the record, but the recorded sound is better, it’s more natural and warmer than what we get today.

   Phillips: Which conductors best articulate the brass sound of the orchestra?
   Clevenger: Mahler Seventh with Solti, and our theme song is Mahler’s Fifth with him. Some of the best concerts we ever played were with that piece.
   Friedman: And they were better than the recording. The recording was one of the first we ever made with Solti and the sound was bad, but we did much better than that on tour. My all-time favorite concert was that Ma Vlast with Kubelik in ’81; I’ll never forget that. I don’t know if someone can conduct better than that. I’m really down on conductors because I don’t hear many that make much out of the orchestra, but I can’t imagine someone conducting better than he did that night. It was like the first time he had ever done it and the last at the same time. It was so intense; it was unbelievable.
   Some of those Martinon tapes of live performances were great. The Concert Music for Strings and Brass recording in 1965 is one of my favorite things for the brass sound. The Bruckner Seventh with Solti in 1965 was phenomenal, too.
   Clevenger: Giulini conducting the Verdi Requiem; you’re in church and at the opera at the same time.

   Phillips: Are there certain composers the orchestra favors?
   Clevenger: Bruckner.
   Friedman: We get a little Americanized with Bruckner, though. I wish we had a conductor who would do an Old World kind of Bruckner that isn’t too muscular. Many conductors tend to get bombastic with Bruckner.

   Phillips: What conductors do you feel bring the most energetic, enthusiastic, ideal Chicago brass sound from the orchestra?
   Friedman: When Solti first started here years ago I think the sound was different than it is now. He was more concerned with sound quality than he is now. He worked on articulation and the string sound more than he does now. He was more particular about the orchestral sound and the style. He had a good concept of sound on the Mahler Fifth, and we had it too. The Rheingold that we did with him in 1971 was great.
   Clevenger: Some of his Wagner performances, and Salome and Elektra stand out in my mind.
   Friedman: The third act of Gotterdammerung was great. Our sound fit his concept exactly, and he knew it. When the music is right for him, I think that he gets a good brass sound and a good orchestral sound. When the music is not right for him, we still get a sound, but maybe it’s out of place musically. When the sound fits our style and the music fits his style, he gets as good a sound as anybody. There are a very limited number of pieces now that he seems to be right on: Mahler and Bruckner, but the Mahler more than the Bruckner.

   Phillips: Do you feel that the core sound of the orchestra or the brass section has been maintained over the years?
   Friedman: I think the sound is amazingly similar; the tuba has changed since Jake left, and also Kleinhammer [bass trombonist], because Kleinhammer and Jake played with one sound. They were great when they were in their heyday. That’s going to change the sound of the brass section, so I don’t think we know right now. The tradition is there, the style is there, but there’s going to be a subtle change now with Jake and Kleinhammer not there.
   With a change of conductors there will be a subtle change in sound. I still think the style is going to be basically the same and the tradition is going to be the same, but there’s going to be a subtle change in the sound.

   Phillips: After what you said earlier, you’re convinced that the Chicago brass sound will still set the standard?
   Clevenger: Oh, I think so.
   Friedman: Yes, Herseth is there. It will always be the sound when he’s there.