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A legendary CSO horn player struggles against time

Dale Clevenger is in his twilight years—and critics can't help but notice

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During the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's October visit to Mexico City, music director Riccardo Muti was seen having lunch in the hotel lobby with French horn player Dale Clevenger, the leader of the orchestra's horn section. That they shared lunch was interesting; that they shared it publicly was significant.

If you carefully read the reviews of the CSO in Chicago's daily papers, you know the critics think Clevenger has fallen far off the form that once made him the most gleaming jewel of the orchestra's crowning glory, its brass. "A pity Dale Clevenger virtually sabotaged the horn and flute duet," the Tribune's John von Rhein wrote in a February 2011 concert review, "but the principal horn at least managed his solo in the finale acceptably."

Four months later von Rhein had better news. "It's been a rocky year for Dale Clevenger, both personally and professionally," von Rhein reported, "but it was good to hear him playing at something near his well-remembered form on Thursday."

December 2011 brought another mixed review. "Clevenger fumbled his entrance in the slow movement but redeemed himself in the finale," von Rhein observed. This past June he could report that "Clevenger sustained the big horn solo well." Was the principal horn returning to form? Von Rhein does not allow us to think so. Reporting from Mexico in October, he told us that "you could almost hear the sigh of relief among his colleagues when french horn Dale Clevenger made it through the performance unscathed." And last month, reviewing Mahler's Third at Symphony Center, von Rhein called the "shockingly poor playing from the horns and trumpets (the principal horn and trumpet in particular), a major blot on an otherwise intelligent and absorbing performance."

Von Rhein was not alone in his distress. His Sun-Times counterpart, Andrew Patner, allowed in his review of the same concert that "the problems of the principal horn are, alas, by now well-known. That he takes his colleagues with him as they must vamp and play to cover his difficulties has become saddening." And the write-up by online critic Lawrence Johnson at Chicago Classical Review alluded to "the weekly high-wire act from the CSO's principal horn."

Von Rhein refused to discuss Clevenger with me. Patner and I talked at length. (It was Patner who told me about the lunch in Mexico City.) Patner says he originally regarded the criticism of Clevenger he'd been hearing from concertgoers as "premature and tiresome." Clevenger, whom Patner considered a friend, was having a tough time of it: his wife, Alice Render Clevenger, herself a French horn player who sometimes played with the CSO, was slowly dying of cancer, and if Clevenger was off form it was understandable.

But in February of 2010, Patner decided he had to address the subject. "I called him before it ran," Patner says. "We spoke for almost an hour. I didn't want to stab the guy in the back but I wanted to tell him. And the piece came out and he's never spoken to me again. Alice never spoke to me again." She died in March of last year.

Here's what Patner wrote:

Dale Clevenger, 69, has been principal horn of the CSO and one of the world's legendary orchestral musicians for exactly 44 years now. In addition to his unmatched abilities as a section leader and his contributions as a teacher for almost a half-century, he has been a conscience of the CSO and an outspoken critic of any moves by the orchestra toward mediocrity. His outspokenness has earned him enemies who know little about his instrument.

So it is no joy to write these words, but the level of his playing this season and his technical troubles in high-profile solos in both Chicago and at Carnegie Hall over the last month have been far below the standards of the CSO, standards that he more than any other current member of the orchestra has maintained and defended. As with a great athlete in his twilight, as with many of his colleagues who faced similar periods after decades of distinguished service to the CSO, this cannot be an easy time for Clevenger. But it's time for a cap on a unique orchestral career that should be noted for its many triumphs and not a late struggle against time.

Patner's comments earned him a scolding from "Jay," a Toronto musician who maintains a blog called Hornlogic. "Sitting on the hot seat in (arguably) the greatest orchestra in North America for 44 years should have earned him some slack from critics in Chicago," Jay wrote on his blog. "I've studied with several of his former students and they all possess a heroic view of their former teacher and have nothing but respect for him. . . .

"So, Mr. Andrew Patner . . . your review may have felt really good to write, but all you did was alienate informed readers."

Yet visitors to Hornlogic who said they'd been informed by recently hearing Clevenger play generally sided with Patner. Patner was first to post a comment. "There wasn't one thing about writing that piece that felt 'really good' at all. Don't be ridiculous."

If the world were fairer to the old their skills would not erode; but as they do, the deference due artists who no longer command them will forever be debated. Clevenger joined the CSO as principal horn in 1966; a CSO trustee speaking on background described him to me as a daring musician who owed his greatness to his willingness to risk everything with one of the most "exposed" and treacherous instruments in the orchestra. But now, the trustee observed, Clevenger's positive outlook has become the orchestra's enemy if not his own. I know I've been having problems, he tells colleagues, but I'm better than I was last year, and I'll soon be back on my game. Some colleagues doubt it.

If Clevenger were to retire, we'd surely see a round of utterly sincere tributes to a musical giant; no doubt a concert would be performed in his honor. But if that is not his way, the alternative would be for Muti to choose what Patner calls the "nuclear option." Under the musicians' union contract with the CSO, Clevenger cannot be demoted from first chair down into the ranks (though he can be asked, and has been asked, to sit out certain pieces he'd otherwise perform). But Muti can dismiss him from the orchestra for failure to perform adequate services.

That is, Muti can initiate the dismissal process. Mediation, a review panel, and arbitration are all parts of the process, and two years or more could easily go by before it runs its course. But I'm told by the CSO trustee that Muti—who is out of the country and won't be back in Chicago until January—is temperamentally unsuited to firing people. He might also be too smart to try. The long, wretched process of dismissing Clevenger could shatter the orchestra. Other musicians would be completely torn. They would stand with Clevenger out of union solidarity, and also because they admire and love him. "Just about every important horn player around was a student at one point or another," says Patner. "I've not talked to anybody in the orchestra who doesn't understand the tremendous loyalty and protection other members of the section are offering Dale."

Yet as musical collaborators proud to make music at a level no orchestra in the world can surpass, they would understand that something needed to be done. They would wish Clevenger had left gracefully when the getting was good.

I've made repeated calls to Clevenger at home that weren't returned. I've also tried to reach him through the CSO. I had no luck with that, and no luck with getting a comment from Muti. It felt odd asking CSO publicists to help me reach a CSO superstar so I could ask him about mounting criticism of his music making. Making the odd even odder was the reaction of the publicists, who made no attempt to discourage me by insisting there was no story.

After all, Clevenger has not been reviewed with regret only in Chicago. Pierre Boulez, a friend of Clevenger's, led the CSO at Carnegie Hall two years ago. "Mr. [Mathieu] Dufour, Mr. [Eugene] Izotov and David McGill, the principal bassoonist, made eloquent contributions," wrote the New York Times critic. "Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the venerable principal French-horn player, Dale Clevenger, whose work fell considerably short of the exceptionally high standard the orchestra otherwise maintained throughout an engagement worth celebrating."

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that Riccardo Muti will be back in Chicago in January.

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