It could not have been easy for Dale Clevenger to face up to the question of how and when to step down as principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But it was time.
For months one of the living legends among brass players had been telling friends he was returning to form after going through a rocky period technically over the last couple of years and that he was looking forward to staying on with the orchestra long enough to celebrate 50 years in the post in 2016.
It was not to be. As the CSO announced on Tuesday, the 73-year-old Clevenger will retire from the orchestra on June 30, after an astonishing 47 years as a leader of its crowning glory, the brass section.
Clevenger's leaving truly marks the end of an era. Appointed to the post by music director Jean Martinon when he was only 26, he went on to serve under all three of Martinon's successors, along with countless guest conductors. His virtuosic playing and golden tone grace many a CSO performance and recording. And his supreme value as a section leader and soloist is matched by his achievements as an educator: Name any important horn player in the world and chances are he or she studied with Dale at one time or another.
One cannot escape the irony that a musician so long known as an outspoken defender of the CSO against mediocrity should, in the twilight of his career, have to face criticism from inside and outside the orchestra that mediocrity had set into his own playing.
Chicago music critics today are, as a rule, a forgiving lot, especially when it comes to writing about respected musicians in Clevenger's league. All of us would have much preferred celebrating the man's many achievements over the decades instead of having to point out the flaws that crept into his playing in late career.
Perhaps no instrument of the orchestra is more exposed or more treacherous to play than the French horn. When a horn player hits a wrong note or splatters a solo, everybody knows it.
But when, as in Clevenger's case, a pattern of flubs emerges that is widely acknowledged over time, that no cosmetic efforts or vamping by orchestra colleagues can save, that finally impacts on the orchestra's performance as a whole – then the problem becomes serious and must be addressed publicly. Chicago critics were by no means alone in doing so: Critics at the New York Times and New Yorker also have cited problems in Clevenger's playing following recent CSO residencies in Carnegie Hall.
Of course, other veteran CSO musicians faced troublesome periods similar to what Clevenger has been going through. Some got out gracefully while the getting was good. Others stayed on past their shelf life.
Clevenger's situation posed a quandary for Riccardo Muti. If he did nothing to address the deficiencies, he would be perceived as a weak music director. If he had initiated the dismissal process (on the dubious grounds that Clevenger somehow failed to perform adequate services), the matter would have had to come up for mediation, arbitration and review, and would have dragged on for years. The ugly business would have divided and demoralized the orchestra. That's precisely what happened when Martinon tried to fire now-retired principal oboe Ray Still in 1967.
Did the maestro exert polite pressure behind the scenes, perhaps hoping Clevenger would exit on his own volition? We may never know for sure, since all parties remain mum on the subject.
But enough. Time to celebrate the good and draw a veil over the not-so-good. Clevenger's reputation is secure enough to withstand the slings and arrows of the press in his twilight years. He still has much to give us. At the end of the day, the most important thing is the great music-making this giant among horn players is leaving us with.
Choosing a favorite Clevenger performance from the many I've heard at Orchestra Hall and Ravinia over 35 seasons is difficult.
His solo playing in the Mahler symphonies was one of the undisputed glories of the Georg Solti years. It was through his wonderful 1989 performance of Brahms' choral songs, for women's voices and two horns, under Erich Leinsdorf, that I discovered these rarely heard romantic gems. And there were the nonpareil Clevenger performances that fortunately were recorded commercially – two of the best are Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting; and Brahms' Horn Trio, with Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim.
The timing of Clevenger's resignation will give the CSO plenty of time to schedule auditions to select a successor. His chair won't be at all easy to fill, of course, even though the top hornists from all corners of the globe will be lining up to have a go at it. Fortunately associate principal Daniel Gingrich continues to soldier on in the first chair and does so splendidly.
It's good news that Clevenger, a teacher without peer among orchestral horn players, has moved from an adjunct position at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, in Bloomington, to a fulltime position in the school's brass department. He will take up his new post in the fall. Thus a new generation of brass players will benefit from the wisdom and experience of this superb, widely admired musician.