Chicago turmoil over principal oboe

Chicago turmoil over principal oboe


norman lebrecht

May 25, 2017

It is reported by John von Rhein that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has refused tenure to Alex Klein, the principal oboe, at the end of his probationary period.

The Brazilian virtuoso held the seat  from 1995 to 2004 when he was forced to retire with focal dystonia, a disability that affected two fingers of his left hand. His return last year was greeted as a personal victory over a debilitating condition, a triumph of the human will. During the season his artistry has been praised several times by Riccardo Muti, the music director.

The CSO’s decision to withhold tenure was communicated to Alex Klein last month. It is now being questioned by some members of the orchestra and by Klein’s attorney, who is demanding that the CSO clarify its reasons.

Neither side will comment until the process is resolved.


  • Mark Henriksen says:

    I hear in the video interview about the physical problems from the players point of view but not about how this malady affects technique. Do technical glitches show up in fast passages?

  • Max Grimm says:

    “The CSO’s decision to withhold tenure […] is now being questioned by some members of the orchestra […]”

    Who decides on granting/withholding tenure at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Is it not the members of the orchestra by majority vote?

    • Charles says:

      Max – I don’t know specifically how it works in Chicago, but in most American orchestras, the audition committee that hired the musician gives a recommendation on tenure to the music director, who then has much, if not all, of the discretion as to whether the candidate receives tenure.

    • Bruce says:

      In the US, the usual standard is that the final decision rests with the music director.

      From the article: “Candidates for tenured positions in the CSO are subject to evaluation during their probation period by a tenure review committee of orchestra members, but the decision as to who is hired as a permanent member rests squarely with Music Director Riccardo Muti.” (Klein was hired by Daniel Barenboim, who also had the final decision.)

      Sometimes it happens that the musicians love someone but the conductor doesn’t, so they don’t get tenure. It also happens the other way around sometimes; but generally, the conductor and musicians agree. But still, the conductor’s opinion is the sine qua non.

      • Max Grimm says:

        Thanks, Bruce. Unfortunately my mobile device was and still is being uncooperative, refusing to load the linked article (with the exception of the ‘Chicago Tribune’ banner and a Peninsula Hotel Chicago ad).

  • bye bye says:

    “campaigned vigorously”
    “court…the only recourse I have to protect my civil rights”
    “dialogue and understanding”
    “above all respect”
    “If…I am a burden, I will again leave.”

    There’s obviously a lot of hurt feelings and dashed expectations and shattered dreams, all jumbled up in terms of “campaigning” vs “civil rights”, “respect” vs “burden”, “dialogue” vs “lobbying”.

    If an employee’s legal rights have been violated, s/he should be compensated and awarded damages. But the least satisfying outcome for all would be a forced wedding, either by a court order, or by sympathy, or by guilt, or even out of respect.

    (Can you imagine the pressure on Klein if he were ordered to remain? Every minutest technical glitch would have the audience whispering under their breath “Muti was right”.)

  • herrera says:

    Here’s a history lesson from Ray Still whom Klein succeeded at Chicago:

    “When Reiner died in 1963, the orchestra plunged into hard times. It was a turbulent era of management feuds, corrosive labor strikes, and personality clashes centering on the late Jean Martinon, a French conductor of debatable prowess whose tenure as music director reportedly sparked near-mutiny from the orchestra.

    Still never has been one to call anybody maestro unless he felt it was deserved. He also long had been an underground labor organizer, an unusual activity for a first chair player, who normally has separate contracts from the rest of the musicians.

    The orchestra then challenged its management. Still believes a blacklist resulted, and he was on that slate, too.

    “Martinon and I just didn’t get along. I thought he was ruining the orchestra. He even accused me of playing wrong notes during a concert. A perfectionist like me! There were a lot of little things . . . Once I was reading a book in rehearsal, during a movement when I wasn’t playing. He ordered me off the stage. I put the book away . . . Well, to make a long story short, I got fired . . . ”

    Despite any stereotypes surrounding first-chair oboe players, Still’s sudden firing in 1967 split the orchestra. Most players agreed with him, others backed Martinon. Still characteristically fought the dismissal, and after arbitration, won back his job with full seniority rights. His colleagues promptly elected him head of the orchestra’s audition committee. He had been out eight months, and says he lost $10, 000 in salary.

    When a new management broom finally finished sweeping, Martinon had been succeeded by Georg Solti and Carlo Maria Giulini.”

    See the reporting of the arbitration from the Chicago Tribune:

    Don’t give up Alex Klein! Fight for your rights. Make it a tradition of the first oboe chair at Chicago to fight for justice!

    • Bennie says:

      You are part of the problem in this country: Sue, sue and sue!

      • herrera says:

        The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees.

        There’ll always be haters and ignoramuses like Bennie. Ignore them.

        • Anonymous says:

          “Qualified” individuals. In this case, it’s up to the musicians and the music director to determine whether the individual was qualified. They determined that he was not.


          • Anonymous 2 says:

            Oh please! He was set up by the “audition committee” full of idiots and arrogants. Muti should be the first one to be kicked out!! Send him back to Italy!!!

          • Mark says:

            From a listener’s perspective, Mr. Klein’s playing stands out with star quality. That is reminiscent of the old CSO style, but Mr. Muti is cultivating a more blended balanced sound. Thus, the brass does not overwhelm the rest of the orchestra as much as it used to, and often plays with more sensitivity than CSO audiences of past have experienced. The woodwinds too are often more balanced. However, in many of the concerts I attended, the oboe has frequently been prominent amoung the wind sections. I have no insight if this was part of the issue here, but after recently hearing other major orchestra, that was my impression.

            I am not a big Muti fan, but acknowledge his command of the orchestra. In Chicago, the results achieved by guest conductors are very impressive; more so than in the past. There’s much more flexibility compared to the knock your socks off Solti years, which often continued into the Barenboim years. Muti is cultivating a different sound, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he is the one in charge.

          • Eden Elieff says:

            To say that Mr. Klein is not qualified is beyond ridiculous. I heard him play Rossini’s La Scala di Seta in March–one of the most challenging solos for oboe in the repertoire–and it was just perfect AND beautiful. He’s obviously “qualified.” Issues beyond quality and qualifications figured into what happened, whatever those issues may be. The whole situation is terribly sad and mystifying.

          • Mark says:

            I’m not suggesting at all that Mr. Klein is not qualified; I think he sounds marvelous, but so did other candidates. I’m only raising the possibility that his approach may not be consistent with what Muti feels is best for his orchestra. A large number of highly qualified musicians audition for the post, and ultimately it comes down to a subjective decision on the best fit for the orchestra.

          • Grace says:

            Mark, you wrote: “I’m not suggesting at all that Mr. Klein is not qualified; I think he sounds marvelous, but so did other candidates.”
            Other candidates???? Were you present at this audition? Are you a real “listener”… Or maybe one of your best friends did not get the job? Right… your explanation is full of contradictions. My god… arrogants!!!

          • Mark says:

            I did not attend any auditions but did attend concerts where there were guest principal oboes playing. I do not personally know any of them.

          • Wai Kit leung says:

            Anonymous 2/Grace appeared quite agitated and upset. I wonder why.

            In any case, with Mr. Klein pedigree, I am sure many other opportunities will come his way.

    • MacroV says:

      Ray Still’s story is a classic, but not sure there are any lessons to be drawn; Still’s was a case where he was fired on very dubious legal grounds and the management’s case fell apart. If Alex Klein is on probation like any new player, the orchestra’s master agreement outlines how tenure is granted/refused. It may be a debatable artistic decision, but if all provisions of the contract are being followed, not sure what he can do.

      I was thinking, without any particular justification, that he would still have been covered by his tenure from the first time around, and that he was in effect just resuming his disrupted career in the CSO.

      I know he has participated on SD in the past, and assume he’s constrained from commenting at the moment. In any case it’s a pity; his return last year was a great feel-good story.

      • ALEX says:

        You got that right, Macrov. 🙂

        I am not commenting yet, because there is still a lot to learn about this situation.

        Incidentally, on the other subject, Focal Dystonia affects the 3rd and 4th fingers of my left hand (“A” and “G” on woodwinds). I can play by forcing the fingers to behave, but this extra tension leads to inflammation, etc. A delicate balance must be found. And I found it. Focal Dystonia and these two fingers were not a problem at all this season. Occasional pains, which is to be expected given the work load, but on we go with massage therapists and wait until the body naturally adjusts and balances everything. I may never be out of Focal Dystonia, but this was a wonderful season to prove that we can find a way around it, with sensory tricks and close attention to how the body responds. I went at it gradually, for the first few months not playing much more than orchestra services, and gradually increasing practice time. I am now able to practice a wonderful three hours daily, and hope to continue increasing. It works!

        • Bruce Weinstein says:

          I wish you the best of luck in this struggle. I have had to retire two years early due to an injury that caused a temporary paralysis of my left hand. I know what a fight this is to regain the ability to play, something we as musicians hold as necessary as air is to breathe. Best wishes,
          Bruce Weinstein, principal oboe retired
          Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

        • Marcia Butler says:

          Mr. Klein, I remember very well when you were hired in 1995, thinking, now here is an oboist with a real voice. You were and still are a shining star in the oboe world. I hope this goes your way because we need great solo oboists in our American orchestras. Please know that you have the music world behind you – on your side. God speed.
          Marcia Butler – former NYC freelance oboist. Author, The Skin Above My Knee, A Memoir.

        • Bruce says:

          Best wishes in this whole “process” with the CSO, and congratulations on what you have already accomplished.

  • Anna Ahronheim says:

    Mr. Klein — I am not a professional musician, just a Chicago ex-pat who has maintained my CSO subscription and attend only rarely. My first concert of the season — and what was to be my first opportunity to hear my favorite instrumentalist back where he belongs in the principal oboe chair of the CSO – is this coming Tuesday. I was so looking forward to it, and was on my way to Chicago when I learned of this sad turn of events. I send you heart-felt wishes for a positive resolution.

  • HugoPreuss says:

    I can’t comment on the merits of the case. But I thought that the days when the conductor ruled as supreme dictator were over and replaced by a more collegial style of governance. This sounds as if it is one person against everybody else, and the “one person” constitutes the majority.

    Having said that, even among conductors Maestro Muti is not necessarily known to have the easiest relations with his musicians.

  • Martin Kennedy says:

    Here’s a potentially amazing, spectacular, happy ending – went to a performance of Ravel Piano in G and Mother Goose in Calgary last night. Always wonderful;, but exquisite ‘new’ oboist. Except he didn’t look all that new! Guess who?! Mr. Klein! Apparently he’s looking to trade the Windy City for dynamic (and cold!) Calgary! Longer winter, but better health care. Here’s hoping he stays to inspire musicians and music lovers in this young city!

  • Martin Kennedy says:

    Here’s a potentially amazing, spectacular, happy ending – went to a performance of Ravel Piano in G and Mother Goose in Calgary last night. Always wonderful;, but exquisite ‘new’ oboist. Except he didn’t look all that new! Guess who?! Mr. Klein! Apparently he’s looking to trade the Windy City for dynamic (and cold!) Calgary! Longer winter, but better health care. Here’s hoping he stays to inspire musicians and music lovers in this young city!

  • Martin Kennedy says:

    We went to hear the Calgary Philharmonic last night…and noticed some exquisite oboe lines from a mysterious ‘new’ player. Except this guy didn’t look new…unlike the newest principal clarinettist and bassoonist. A sub? Would our young orchestra bring in some one so amazing to ‘back’ piano concerto? Orchestral intrigue! How amazing to find out that Mr. kKlein might be our new principal!!!?! Calgary is a young, but vibrant city. To have a musician of his pedigree join us is so exciting. His inspiration will affect our orchestra and thousands of musicians in our community. Chicago’s loss…one musical director’s impossible pursuit of his idea of perfection blesses hundreds of thousands music lovers.