Riccardo Muti mourns Chicago’s glorious horn

Riccardo Muti mourns Chicago’s glorious horn


norman lebrecht

January 07, 2022

The family of Dale Clevenger have issued this notice:
Michael Dale Clevenger, renowned french horn player, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, friend, passed away peacefully Wednesday, January 5th from complications of Waldenstrom’s disease. His life’s great work was playing principal horn with the Chicago Symphony from 1966-2013 where he performed with risk, precision, expression, sensitivity, and a contagious enthusiasm – all of which moved his listeners and students to think of music as a living, breathing, and richly human activity. He is survived by his wife, Giovanna, his four children, Michael, Ami, Mac, and Jesse, and his two granddaughters, Cameron and Leia. His late wife and stand partner of 25 years, Alice, passed away in 2011. To those who wish to express sympathy, please consider directing donations to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by calling 312-294-3100 or visiting https://cso.org/support/contact-development/. Dale will be honored at Christ Church in Winnetka, IL sometime in the late spring.

In a statement from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the death of former principal horn Dale Clevenger, music director Riccardo Muti makes reference to their personal friendship: ‘The loss of Dale Clevenger, one of the best and most famous horn players of our time and one of the glories of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, leaves a very deep void in the music world. Fortunately, we have many audiovisual recordings of him with the Chicago Symphony to show his extraordinary technique and nobility of musical phrasing. I am certain that all his colleagues, former and current, all horn students and myself, as we were personal friends, will mourn this huge loss.’

The orchestra announcement reads:
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the loss of Dale Clevenger, who served as principal horn from 1966 until 2013. He died Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Italy, at the age of 81.

Mr. Clevenger was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on July 2, 1940. A legend in the world of French horn for his sound, technique, finesse and fearless music-making, he joined the CSO at the invitation of seventh music director Jean Martinon. Throughout his 47-year tenure, he performed under subsequent music directors Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, along with titled conductors Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink, Carlo Maria Giulini and Claudio Abbado, among countless guest conductors.

Full CSO statement continues here.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg


  • Player says:

    Nice photo of Muti and Clevenger. Muti was also a friend of Carlos Kleiber’s, I think, so here is a lovely story that used to be told by Peter Jonas… involving both Dale Clevenger and Carlos Kleiber together, in Chicago.

    Kleiber was trying to the Freischüz overture right, and the CSO was somehow not giving him what he wanted.

    He began to describe to them how they should imagine a Caspar David Friedrich painting, with the mist rising behind the trees of the forest.

    From the back there came a voice: “Maestro, can I ask a question?”

    “Yes, Mr Clevenger…”

    “Do you mean LOUDER?”

    “Yes, Mr Clevenger.”

  • Menahem Pressler says:

    I am deeply saddened by the loss of my dear, much admired friend and colleague. His studio is near mine at Jacob’s School of Music in Bloomington and it was always a joy to see him and talk on our way to or from teaching. He was a delightful warm human being as well as a magician with his instrument. My profound condolences to Giovanna and his children.

  • Alank says:

    And what magnificent musician he was! I had the fortune to be in Chicago in the mid-1970’s at the U of Chicago. The highlight of my stay there was going to Orchestra Hall and be -ing enthralled by Mr. Clevenger and his brass colleagues performing Mahler 1,2,5 and Bruckner 8 and 9 under Solti, Abbado, and Giulini. The combination of Clevenger and his colleagues Bud Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, and Jay Friedman was incomparable and their magnificent sound still rings in my ears after so many years! RIP Mr. Horn!

    • caranome says:

      Ditto here 1973-77. I especially remember me on the floor right by stage looking up at Solti gyrating n shadow boxing n sweating profusely during Mahler 1 at Mandell Hall. Blew my ears off. Also when CSO was recording a Wagner orchestral program at Orchestra Hall, during the finale of Tannhauser Overture when entire CSO let loose (esp. the horns) one of the TV lights blew out, so they decided to do the whole thing over! Twice orgasm (aural, alas), but still not a bad night.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      What an orchestra!!! And its renowned brass section; perfection.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    There is quite a bit of early biographical information about Dale Clevenger and in particular how he broke into music as a young man, in William Barry Furlong’s 1974 book “Season With Solti.” He didn’t start playing horn until he was 13 (switching from trumpet which he started at 11) and by 16 was playing professionally in the Chattanooga Symphony. It included playing in Radio City Music Hall, Broadway pit orchestras, pop band recordings, commercial jingles, and subbing with many orchestras including on tour. It also mentions his conducting ambitions at that time. And interestingly, he lamented that except for Mason Jones in Philadelphia, he and other principal horns in the US did not have the situation that many of their finest European counterparts have, or had at that time: every first horn was a professor and often had been the teacher for the rest of the horn section. As he put it in the book “In America, it’s hard to make a [horn] section.”

    Back in the 1970s the small-city Wisconsin orchestra I played in for a few years had a nice relationship with the Chicago Symphony where first chair players would “use” our orchestra if they were working on a concerto to be eventually performed with the CSO. We were far enough away from Chicago that we were not diluting anything for the CSO appearance.

    Dale Clevenger made the drive north and was our soloist in the Richard Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1. He was of course gloriously flawless, and our own horn section was extremely excited to have the chance to hear what he and his horn could do in our hall (which as happens often, sounded so much better empty at rehearsal than with an audience absorbing the reverb), playing entirely soloistically, no holding back when Strauss called for power. It was a horn sound you do not encounter often “live” — it was like hearing a recording cranked up loud, but never brittle or thin. It was hard even for a string player not to be envious because in addition to being the top horn in the top orchestra, the then-young Clevenger looked like a stage actor or a professional model for dress shirt advertisements. And you could not but be charmed by his Southern drawl, although he was mostly all-business and not as amiable as Adolph Herseth who kept strolling over to chat with or tell stories about conductors to those of us in the first violin section (“well if I was at work tonight I wouldn’t be playing Hummel, I’d be playing Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole.” Our orchestra was OK but could not imagine tackling that piece).

  • NYMike says:

    At a 1963 Symphony of the Air rehearsal not long before the orchestra folded from lack of funding, a very young Clevenger playing ass’t principal horn had to take the principal’s place because said principal didn’t show up. Wallenstein immediately started with the horn entrance to Brahms 3rd Symphony’s 3rd movement. Although asked to repeat the passage several times, the kid did so with flying colors. Some of us wondered who that kid was.

  • Robert Levin says:

    This is shocking and very sad news. Dale was one of the preeminent horn players of our time – his solo in the 1969 RCA recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is simply sublime, perhaps the best on any commercial recording of the work. I represented him for several years as a soloist and conductor and found him to be a very decent human being as well as an incredible instrumentalist and excellent orchestra leader. It was unfortunate that he didn’t retire sooner form the CSO, but those last few years have already been forgotten and he will always be remembered as a towering French horn player, one of the very greatest of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. RIP Dale.

  • Chicagorat says:

    For once, and to my own deepest surprise, I cannot but agree with the Bill Clinton of classical music. If you long to catch a pale glimpse of the CSO forever sunk glory, audiovisual recordings are your friends.

    (Not to mention that Muti has “castrated” the entire brass section. Starting from old Clevenger, whom he forced to retire on account of the dismal playing characteristic of his late years. Clevenger left but asked for something in return, as we all know.)

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Based on the evidence of the late Solti era recordings, I would say that brass section was in need of ‘castration’. I say that as a brass player myself. It’s well known that the habit of letting the brass get ever louder in Chicago, was based on the reality that the players were having difficulty hearing themselves and each other – all stemming from the hall having been monkeyed with in middle 1960’s (there have been efforts to fix the acoustical damage, but to a minimal degree of success). I think the history of the C.S.O. is different and more complex than most people think. I would urge you or anyone else to get the RCA box set of C.S.O. recordings conducted by Jean Martinon, just to hear how musical this orchestra once sounded.

      • John Kelly says:

        Agreed, it’s an excellent set with some incendiary performances. However for those of us who remember the “Chicago blare” under Solti, it’s apparent the brasses were a very muscular group under Martinon (listen to Nielsen 4 and the Lalo Roi Overture for example) and for Reiner before that. The “castration” began under Barenboim. I well remember a Bruckner 5 in Chicago under Gunther Wand with the trumpets playing rotary where he really kept the brasses quiet and it sounded like a different orchestra ….with the right sound for Bruckner. I suspect the orchestra hated this and Herseth cracked a note in the scherzo -the only time I ever heard him crack in about 30 live concerts……probably deliberate.

    • WL Weller says:

      What are you talking about?

  • MB says:

    We have to respect what Muti says. We won’t find a more credible horns expert.

  • bal de vis says:

    Apropod… a YouTube video…