Principal oboe: Why I had to leave the Chicago Symphony – twice

January 12, 2018 by norman lebrecht


Alex Klein was a Grammy-winning oboe player when he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affects the finger muscles.

After struggling on for four years, he resigned from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2004, crashed out on his parents’ couch and slowly, slowly began to rebuild his life.

In 2016, he won his Chicago seat back as principal oboe. It seemed to be a triumph of mind over malady.

A year later, he was refused tenure.

Here, for the first time on screen, Alex explains how he coped with disaster, triumph and identity crisis. ‘I was only sleeping two hours a night…. It’s like part of me really did die.’

It’s a harrowing story, with a powerful message for us all.


Comments (43)

  1. anonanon says:

    How’s Chicago coming along filling the principal positions of oboe, horn and trumpet?

    They should take as much time as it takes, because any one of these positions can either make the CSO great or just good.

    I think for instance the current principal clarinet is an amazing voice in the orchestra. When I listen to recent recordings on the CSO website, Stephen Williamson’s sound always stops me in my tracks and makes me replay the passage he’s playing.

    1. guest says:

      I heard that they gave a trial to Mark Inouye who is the Principal Trumpet in San Francisco and extend an offer. How this guy is unqualified is not a question I have any hope of answering. He sounded, to me, much preferable to the departed Chris Martin.

      1. guest says:

        *refused to extend an offer.

      2. anonanon says:

        If one compared Chris Martin’s playing of Mahler 5 with the NY Phil under van Zweden and Bud Herseth’s with the CSO under Barenboim (both can be found on youtube, or at least until recently, the NY Phil seems to have taken down their video), Martin’s playing pales in comparison to Herseth’s who must have been in his mid-70s or 80s at the time of the video, and I’m not even talking about artistry, even just at the fundamental level of breath control.

        Great principal wind players come, at most, once in several generations.

        1. Musician says:

          You’re an idiot or perhaps just deaf. Maybe trying comparing Herseth at the height of his powers, like the Solti or Abbado recordings. The last Barenboim CSO Mahler 5 pales in comparison to the recent NY Phil webcast. Clean your ears out!

          1. guest says:

            He is saying Martin’s playing (in his mid 30s I presume) pales in comparison to Herseth who had to have been in his 70s. I happen to agree with that. Herseth wasn’t mechanically as strong at that time but musically it isn’t even close. Even concerts were Ridenour sat in for Martin in the CSO there was a qualitative difference.

  2. Alex Klein says:

    A couple of comments:

    1) tenure was refused within 6-7 months.

    2) this interview was made prior to Riccardo Muti’s tenure decision, and thus was done while I was still in the Chicago Symphony. The “departure” I speak about is the one from 2004, which was done on my own, without any word, wink, nuance or subliminal push out from then-MD Daniel Barenboim, a man whom I will always admire for his compassion, understanding and humanity way above his well known stellar artistry.

    1. off the podium music podcast says:

      Thank you for all you’ve done for the world of music Mr. Klein. Hope to see you perform in the near future. I would love to chat with you on the recent developments if you are interested.

      1. Marcia Butler says:

        Wonderful interview, Mr. Klein. Your internal strength is evident, and we are all the better that you are speaking candidly about this very difficult diagnosis. You are a vital voice in the oboe/music community – still. Wishing you such good things. Marcia Butler, former oboist and author of The Skin Above My Knee – A Memoir.

  3. Bepi Nalin says:

    Hi, my name is Giuseppe Nalin and I am also an oboist who has been practicing the instrument for about 40 years (now I have just turned 63). In particular, I specialize in baroque oboe. I too have the focal dystonia at the same hand and in the same finger of Alex Klein. Mine has manifested itself since 1993, here it is almost 25 years that I live with it.
    It is a subtle and tremendous disease that leaves you initially paralyzed both physically and psychologically. Dystonia is not healed even if many specialists and specialist centers have found good care.
    The series of healing is quite erratic. The most incredible thing is that it is not believed and rarely you can see how serious such an insignificant paralysis is particularly aimed at one or two fingers when you can on the holes or the tool’s key.
    There are various types and stages of dystonia. I do not know if mine is serious or not compared to that of others, but I can testify that I never stopped studying and playing, although I had to reorganize my professional life and above all in practice I had to start from scratch the study of the instrument . I have tried many methods of therapy, but what I have invented and adopted, I believe is absolutely the only one for this type of illness.
    Anyone who wants to can visit all my videos (about 70) that you can find here on my YouTube channel. I have always tried and maintained my professionalism trying to raise my level more semirpe. In the meantime, I’ve had 37 CDs, some of which can be heard here:
    Obviously I can not explain every detail here, but I am available for those who want to contact me to give further details.
    I wish a great wish for the great Alex, a magnificent oboist and I wish him many years of splendid oboist and musical career.
    This is my email:
    [email protected]
    and this is my YouTube channel:
    This is my FB:

  4. Mark Henriksen says:

    I have to wonder about the tenure refusal by the CSO and what the specific reasons were. After watching the video, I believe Mr. Klein would certainly know if he was doing the job. So, what happened?

    1. Anonymous says:

      Simply, he didn’t meet the standard. The old playing was still there in a lot ways, but there were consistent wobbles, intonation problems, refusals to blend with the players around him. And he was difficult and combative with colleagues. None of those things are typically recommended when pursuing tenure.

      1. Arturo says:

        Hey, I know plenty of Principal Oboes who are/were “difficult and combative with colleagues” who not only were tenured but who are now in the oboe hall of fame. It’s part of the territory, that’s just how many behave. I won’t tarnish the names of deceased or recently retired high level Principal Oboes, but trust me, it’s very common.

        Imagine the additional stressor of returning to a big job newly recovered from a grave physical disability, the first person in the history of that malady or in professional music ever to do so. The top and very pressing priority, unfortunately, is not getting along with your colleagues, it’s doing your job – the playing part of your job. Please don’t give me crap about getting along with colleagues is an important part of the job. In the best of all possible worlds, yes, of course it is. But under these very exceptional circumstances it was understandably a lower priority, IMHO.

        A Principal Oboe (any Princ. player, actually) has to appear strong, confident, capable. While it’s important to work well with your ensemble of colleagues, you are also a leader. It’s a fine line when colleagues criticize & suggest changes, which happens with any new player awaiting tenure. It must be really annoying to a seasoned player having to go thru tenure approval for a 2nd time to have to undergo such scrutiny. It would be humiliating and the majority of experienced players I know (esp. oboists) even without focal dystonia, would not react well.

        Any older orchestra player will also understand this. You’ve been there forever. You know what you’re doing. When young conductors or well intending colleagues make suggestions or are critical, you learn to bite your tongue & be polite for the sake of NOT “being difficult and combative”. It takes a lot of self control and it’s frustrating. When you’re on the hot seat, in a Principal position, as Mr. Klein was, you sometimes forget to be diplomatic because the priority is the PLAYING part of your job.

        I don’t think there’s a solo player alive who could have done better than Mr. Klein in this difficult situation. He had enormous odds stacked against him – not just the focal dystonia, but his age, the change in personnel in the orch. since his first tenure. Musicians are only human.

        What he accomplished is an inspiration to all of us. To those suffering from focal dystonia who never thought they’d play again, to older players who never thought they could win an audition. To fine players who don’t get tenure and show the world that they are still successful, productive and active as musicians. That life goes on.

        Alex Klein will go down in the pages of orchestral history. His life is so much more interesting and inspiring than your run-of-the-mill Principal Oboe of a major orchestra.

        I look forward to Mr. Klein sitting down to write an autobiography. He simply must do this. Hoping to read more about this remarkable and inspiring man, Alex Klein. Bravo, Alex!

        1. MacroV says:

          I have no idea what happened at the CSO or whether the tenure decision was fair. But when you’re a new (or new again) player and are on probation, the orchestra can presumably use any justification it wants in its tenure decision, both playing-related and with respect to interpersonal skills. It’s a treacherous field to navigate. I can’t imagine the CSO took the decision lightly – both because of the remarkable story of his return, and simply the cost/hassle of going through another audition process. But they know why it happened this way, and we don’t.

        2. Anonymous says:

          Arturo, that’s exactly why the verdict came down the way it did. The candidate in question was not an “older orchestra player” who’d “been there forever.” He was a new hire who’d been absent from the stage for nearly 15 years and was on probation. Faced with a choice between (1) a player with health and artistic issues and a difficult attitude and (2) waiting to hire a different player with at least equal skills and no baggage . . . it’s not rocket science.

          1. Victoria Racz says:

            Watching this video has only re-established my viewpoint that Alex Klein is a remarkable individual, and amazing musician. Anonymous – you come across as a ‘music insider’ in your comments, and you are certainly entitled to your opinion. However, we are not discussing commercial products here – this is someone’s life and legacy. Please have the courtesy of posting your real name, and standing by the comments you are quick to print in a public forum.

      2. Bruce says:

        “Simply, he didn’t meet the standard.”

        Not agreeing or disagreeing with you — you clearly know more about the situation than the rest of us do — but I just want to point out that decisions of this kind can be subjective. The conductor can decide that this is not the kind of sound he envisions for his orchestra, and the current player is not a good fit.

        It really is like a marriage or long-term relationship: you can be a great match for one person and a terrible match for someone else. People on the outside can, and do, offer their opinions — “I can’t believe she dumped him for that guy” — but the fact is, nobody else gets to decide who you should marry.

        1. Alex Klein says:

          I recently had a meeting with the CSO administration and their attorneys. As part of our Agreement we left on good terms with the expected promise not to speak bad of each other, and that is for several reasons. The demonstration above is obviously a breech of that agreement. Its also out of line, since this blog and the video above are NOT about my recent departure from the CSO, but about a successful battle against a disability, which I am all too eager to share, also for many reasons. And given the name “Anonymous”, it is also cowardly. Given that this person knows a lot of inside information, we can presume it is a CSO member, which makes me very sad and disappointed. It is unfortunate, thus, that a member of the Chicago Symphony would take to this stage to spurt such angry words, out of place, out of line and attempt to shift the discussion away from the intended purpose of the video. But then, of course, given the circumstances, it is understandable that any word I say, any note I play, even if on subjects completely unrelated to that orchestra, would be seen as a provocation by those who see the world under that particular light. The Chicago Symphony is on my past. It won’t come back, and that is our mutual understanding.

          As Polyanna would say, “if you want to find defects in somebody, you certainly will”. Under that level of scrutiny, everyone in this blog, and even Norman too, will be known for what we can’t do, rather than our positive contributions to several causes. If that is how the game works, I am sure I too could find a myriad of issues to raise and characterize others and an institution I carried in my heart for far too long as undeserving of this or that praise. And at the end of the day, all we will have from this exercise is Anonymous’ anger and personal life discontentment to celebrate.

          For the record: I had a wonderful season with the CSO. I loved being back. I loved the playing, and I loved working with my colleagues. The challenges I faced are expressed on this video (again, this interview is about Focal Dystonia, NOT my recent departure from the CSO, and it was done before this tenure issue – if there were any such emotional issues present in my life then, it wouldn’t take a psychologist to identify them during the interview, and they would be very clearly seen in my demeanor, answers, timing, etc). Still, if it is very important for Anonymous and his/her colleagues to find tomatoes to fly into the air, I guess they can push the issue of their choice. My return was held under critical and audience praise. And colleagues too. There were wonderfully positive reviews, no negative ones. In fact the review from Muti’s turf, Milan, mentioned only his and my name on the paper. And upon my departure, fully one third of the musicians sent letters of support to me and appeals to Muti, that number is not to be taken lightly because we all know of orchestral musicians apathy on certain issues – such as tenure decisions. I take it very close to my heart that so many of my colleagues went as far as confronting Riccardo Muti on this. The CSO records all concerts live, and many end up in radio broadcasts. They are there as testimony of what I did, and how I did, under the particular circumstances I faced. If that playing raises praise or criticism, so be it. Its done.

          I would never want to have my playing judged under the light of Focal Dystonia. My greatest challenge in fact is to play so that no one can ever find out exactly what the issue is. Perhaps that is also the desire of every one who has any kind of “disability”: we are not “invalids”. All we want to do it “be normal”, and contribute to the cause.


      3. Blair Tindall says:

        Very much disagree. He is a phenomenal oboist and a terrific person who works very well with others.

      4. John Yeh says:

        The coward who makes personal and shameful false accusations under the veil of anonymity on this public blog is completely out of line. I have been a tenured member of the Chicago Symphony for 39 years. I have had the pleasure of making music in countless rehearsals, performances, tours, and recordings with the great Alex Klein. I can personally report that Mr. Klein is one of the most distinguished, warmly collegial, fascinating, beautiful, communicative musicians in our history. We at he Chicago Symphony Orchestra are indebted to Alex for his unsurpassed contribution to our legacy, and we wish him well in all of his future endeavors. Sincerely, John Bruce Yeh, Chicago Symphony Clarinetist since 1977.

        1. Victoria Racz says:

          Alex Klein’s reply to anonymous (and this entire ordeal) was thoughtful, diplomatic, and extremely considerate, given the circumstances. Thanks to others who have also spoken up so far, such as Blair Tindall and John Yeh. I had a similar experience recently and the fact that some colleagues were brave enough to step up and make their voices heard made a huge difference. As Alex said, most musicians don’t tend to do that and are apathetic, so it is important to point it out and encourage it when it does happen! I’ll keep following this post, and another big thank-you to Alex Klein for being the role-model in how to deal with what the universe throws at you!

  5. Jasper says:

    Philip Smith’s departure (retirement) from the NY Phil as principal trumpet in 2014 was also reportedly due to focal dystonia (embouchure collapse). A great loss to the orchestra, although Christopher Martin (formerly of the CSO) is a marvelous successor.


    1. MacroV says:

      That’s my understanding, too. Though Phil Smith was 64 or 65, so a good time to go out on top in any case.

      1. harold braun says:

        He was 62,when he left.

    2. guest says:

      Chris Martin’s playing is about as interesting as watching paint dry. Might as well have a perfect robot sit in for him. His sound is so mechanical, one-dimensional, and SO FAR from legends such as Herseth, Adelstein, Kaderabek, Schlueter, and other distinctive musical voices who happened to play trumpet.

      1. Guest2 says:

        ”guest” sounds like a miserable, bitter and untalented former colleague of Mr. Martin in Chicago.

        1. guest says:

          Never met the guy. I have just listened to dozens of concerts where his mechanical playing has left me completely unmoved. There’s an old story about a guy who auditioned in Chicago and after the audition he went up to Herseth and said, “Why didn’t I advance, I didn’t miss anything.” Herseth responded, “Just the music.”

        2. Bruce says:

          Keep in mind that “GUEST” is expressing his own opinion — and it tells us more about him than it does about Chris Martin.

      2. anonanon says:

        See my comment above re Mahler 5.

        I disagree, watching Martin play is like watching a pot of water until it boils, you don’t know the exact moment the water will boil over, but you know that he’s going to crack at some point.

  6. Doug says:

    Dear Alex, I LOVE your recording of the Martinu concerto. I consider it the gold standard for this beautiful work. Best wishes.

  7. Robert Holmén says:

    He’s been to the mountain top. He’ll always have that.

    Most of us never will.

    1. Arturo says:

      Beautifully said! Absolutely love that you’ve expressed that!

  8. Lori says:

    Missing Mr Klein here in Chicago. I wish him well. Zai gezint.

  9. Lisa Whitfield says:

    I had the privilege of playing with Alex Klein in the Oberlin Orchestra in the late 80’s. At the first rehearsal of Tombeau de Couperin, Alex played the opening solo flawlessly and with such tremendous beauty that our conductor stopped us so that we could all applaud him. Thirty years later his sound still rings in my ears when I think of that day.

    Alex was an artist and a great team player then. I cannot imagine that changed.

    Here’s wishing him all the best as he moves forward.

  10. William Safford says:

    I heard Alex Klein’s performance at the International Double Reed Society conference last summer. For me, his performance was the highlight of the entire event.

    1. anonanon says:

      Being a soloist is far easier than being a principal player: if you feel like it, you slow down or speed up, and guess what, the conductor and the orchestra have to follow!

      1. Bruce says:

        And your point is…?

  11. Lorenzo Marasso says:

    My post is going to stir some controversy. I believe that Focal Dystonia is not an incurable disease. I am an Italian pianist and I have had focal dystonia. I went through the condition and got past it though it made me change career for a good decade, when I could not make head or tail of the condition. My recovery was prompted by a Spanish trombonist called Joaquin Fabra, a musician who had the condition himself and was able to cure on his own approaching it from a psychological and emotional point of view. Following Fabra’s teachings I was able to recover and reestablish myself as a professional musician.

    In the video above the interviewer touches a bit on the genesis of Focal Dystonia and brings the issue of stress into the table. Alex Klein says that he knew some people who were more stressed out than himself who played fine. FD is not the result of stress nor it is a neurological condition. The medical establishment will tell you that it is incurable and irreversible (and actually Alex mentions this in the interview), but they say so because they approach it from a wrong point of view. And this last phrase is probably the one stirring controversy. I am not a doctor and I prob should not make statements of this kind but having gone through the issue I feel obligated in sharing my story. I have actually started a blog dedicated to FD and you can read it here .

    FD is, in my opinion (and there are quite a few people around the world who share the same viewpoint) a defense mechanism that that the mind puts into place in order to avoid a possible failure. It is the result of unconscious fear, the fear of not being good enough musicians, players, oboists, pianists and what not. All Dystonia sufferers have the same story. The symptoms started low and the person felt that something was not right. With time the symptoms increased but they were actually the response that the musician have put into action through “trying hard”, meaning they were were trying to contain the effect of dystonia but applying more and more tension. Fabra used to say “they use the strength of a ton to pick up a kilo”.

    When a player is caught in this condition they start changing their approach to playing, which is not simply “I’m picking up my instrument and play” but “I know that there is something wrong in my hands/body etc and I need to take action against that”. Repeated practice in this modality changes the cognitive patterns and the player is caught in a loop and feels that Focal Dystonia and its symptoms have become chronic.

    The way to reverse it is to allow themselves to play with the symptoms and play badly and accept playing like that. In fact if a player affected by FD tries to play badly on purpose usually a good percentage of the symptoms disappear instantly. Of course this is a hard thing, if not impossible, when someone in the position of Klein is constantly “expected” of playing up to a standard. Who knows maybe Klein unconsciously feels that playing in the Symphony is too restrictive and that the way his body is manifesting this idea. He also touches a bit on the fact that FD was God’s blessing. Who knows perhaps he will resurface completely healed and in a new musical form. As he is regarded as a very fine musician and oboist I am sure the will to play again will keep him going. The fact is that if he keeps dealing with the symptoms that is a no way out.

    Good luck Alex!

    1. Lorenzo Marasso says:

      Somehow the link to my dystonia blog didn’t make it in the above comment. It is .

  12. harold braun says:

    Having heard Mr.Klein´s solo in Tchaik 4 on their last tour,i can tell you,it was matchless,and so beautifully played it brought me to tears

  13. Sharon says:

    I agree with Arturo. What an inspiring story!! Everyone who identifies with their profession and is having the rug pulled out from under them, whether because of physical challenges, political/cultural challenges i.e. me too. or emotional challenges like depression or manic depression, should watch this video. Like Arturo I hope he writes and autobiography which is translated into a lot of different languages.

  14. Leo says:

    All this stress at top orchestras is getting in the way of the music.
    Some of the greatest recordings of the past have some playing which technically today won’t qualify for a provincial youth orchestra.

  15. Roger Kaza says:

    Alex is a phenomenal artist with whom I’ve had the pleasure to make music at the Marrowstone Festival and with the St. Louis Symphony. Kudos on his amazing journey and the inspiration he gives us.

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