Dale Clevenger, Chicago Symphony's fearless horn master, dies at 81

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Dale Clevenger, Chicago Symphony's fearless horn master, dies at 81
In a photo provided by Todd Rosenberg shows, the composer John Williams wrote a concerto for Dale Clevenger and conducted its premiere with the Chicago Symphony and Clevenger in 2003. Clevenger, whose expressive, daring playing as the solo French horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 47 years made him one of the most respected orchestral instrumentalists of his generation, died on Jan. 5, 2022, at a hospital near his home in Brescia, Italy. He was 81. Todd Rosenberg/Chicago Symphony Orchestra via The New York Times.

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Dale Clevenger, whose expressive, daring playing as the solo French horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 47 years made him one of the most respected orchestral instrumentalists of his generation, died Jan. 5 at a hospital near his home in Brescia, Italy. He was 81.

The cause was complications of Waldenstrom’s disease, a form of lymphoma, his family said.

Clevenger was a pillar of the famed Chicago brass section, which has long been renowned as an unrivaled force for its clean, majestic sound, fearless attacks and sheer might. Working with his equally enduring fellow principals, Adolph Herseth on trumpet, Jay Friedman on trombone and Arnold Jacobs on tuba, Clevenger helped shape that section into the envy of the orchestra world and the joy of its conductors.

In a statement, Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director, called him “one of the best and most famous horn players of our time and one of the glories of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”

Clevenger’s willingness to take risks on his notoriously treacherous instrument, and his ability to surmount those risks seemingly with ease, were symbols of the brash quality of his orchestra. He was a technical virtuoso, but he was also capable of producing an enormous range of colors on his instrument, said Muti’s predecessor, Daniel Barenboim. He was also a frequent chamber music partner and soloist.

The Chicago ensemble was already full of idols when Clevenger joined in 1966, but Herseth and Jacobs were inspirations for him, both for their excellence and for their longevity.

When the Boston Symphony offered Clevenger a post in the mid-1970s, he asked his mentors if they intended to perform in Chicago for as long as they physically could. They said yes. He resolved, he later recalled, that “as long as they were in the orchestra, there is nothing that would lure me away from Chicago.” Herseth went on to be principal for 53 years, Jacobs for 44.

Clevenger was, however, a more versatile musician than that might imply. For 17 years he had a regular Tuesday night date playing jazz with a group called Ears, which he said made him a stronger orchestral player. “Within the confines of symphonic structure,” he said in 1978 about the lessons he learned from improvising, “I can make music in a more relaxed, freer way.”

Jazz was a side gig, but Clevenger was serious about leaving his seat on the stage to stand on the podium. “My dream is eventually to become a respected conductor of a major orchestra anywhere in the world,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. That was not to be, but he did direct the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble in the Chicago suburbs, from 1981-95.

Michael Dale Clevenger was born July 2, 1940, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the third of four children of Ernest Clevenger, a sawmill manufacturer who was briefly president of the Chattanooga Opera Association, and Mary Ellen (Fridell) Clevenger, a homemaker. He started learning piano at age 7 and went to concerts with his father.

“I kept my eye on this shape of metal, which was the French horn,” Clevenger recalled of attending those concerts in a video interview for Abilene Christian University in 1984. “I was infatuated with the way they looked. The more I looked, the more I became infatuated with the way they sound. I had a dream, a vision, to play one of those things.”

Unable to afford a horn, Ernest Clevenger bought his 11-year-old son a trumpet instead, but Dale Clevenger persisted. At 14, after making do with a school instrument for a year, he had his own horn, and his life.

Clevenger performed in the Chattanooga Symphony and the Chattanooga High School band, under bandmaster A.R. Casavant, who played him records of the Chicago Symphony during his lunch hour.

He enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1958 to study with Forrest Standley, principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

After graduating in 1962, he freelanced in New York, joined Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra and spent a year as principal of the Kansas City Philharmonic.

He failed his first audition with the Chicago Symphony, in May 1965, but succeeded at a second, in January 1966. On his first week on the job, he was a soloist in Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra.

“For his initial time out,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “he seems a capable addition to our superb first chair lineup.”

The Martin concerto was recorded and later released. As well as appearing countless times on record as an ensemble player, Clevenger was a soloist on several later Chicago Symphony recordings, including a glowing account of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings under Carlo Maria Giulini and a disc of Strauss concertos that won a Grammy in 2002. Clevenger also set down Haydn and Mozart concertos with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, and earned a further Grammy for the quintets for piano and winds by Beethoven and Mozart, sharing the bill with Chicago principal clarinetist Larry Combs (a fellow jazz player on Tuesday nights), two members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Barenboim.

In his final years in Chicago, music critics began raising questions about whether Clevenger was performing up to his usual standards. In 2010, Andrew Patner, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, called for him to place “a cap on a unique orchestral career that should be noted for its many triumphs and not a late struggle against time.”

Clevenger retired from the orchestra in 2013 and joined the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. He had also taught at Northwestern and Roosevelt universities.

Clevenger married Nancy Sutherland in 1966; they divorced in 1987. Alice Renner, a hornist and sometime section partner in the Chicago Symphony, became his wife that year; she died in 2011. He married Giovanna Grassi in 2012. She survives him, as do a son, Michael, and a daughter, Ami, from his first marriage; two sons, Mac and Jesse, from his second marriage; a sister, Alice Clevenger Cooper; and two grandchildren.

Clevenger, for whom John Williams wrote a concerto in 2003, always maintained that the purpose of his playing was to delight.

“I realize that I have been given a gift by God to make music, to perform music and to give people joy,” he said in the 1984 video interview. “I have the pleasure, the privilege, of making people happy — and in doing so, making my own self happy.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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