There are people who have traveled great distances to spend an afternoon with Dale Clevenger, but since he lives in a nearby Chicago suburb, I didn’t have to. Those who journeyed thousands of miles are musicians who dreamed of the chance to be coached by the world-famous solo French Horn player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Most of them wanted to improve their technique on that fiendishly difficult instrument. Most of them hoped to heighten their musicianship, elevate their art in performance.
I don’t play the horn, but in the course of recording Dale Clevenger’s oral history for the CSO, I received some lessons, too.
Not about music, but about life. About the beginnings and the ends of things. About the way careers in any field are started; and how they finish.
The first had to do with auditions. And also the need for perseverance despite repeated rejection.
If you are a musician, an audition can feel as though you are on stage naked in front of a small group of listeners who will decide whether you have “the chops:” the ability to make music at the highest possible level. But if you aren’t a musician, you probably still have had something close to this experience: giving an oral report in school, sitting for an oral defense of your masters thesis or dissertation, giving a speech; or perhaps simply going for a job interview or asking someone on a date.
Clevenger had significant successes before he came to the CSO. He played in the Kansas City Philharmonic, the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra in New York, and the American Symphony under Leopold Stokowski (the conductor Disney captured on film in Fantasia). He toured Europe with the Pittsburgh Symphony and recorded the Shostakovich Symphony #7 with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
While a member of the American Symphony, at age 22, a big chance came: an opening in the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, several steps above any of the ensembles with which he had previously worked full-time. The Berlin band was in New York on tour, performing in Carnegie Hall. And when he walked on stage for the audition, he performed not for a small group of listeners, but for the entire orchestra, as well as its storied music director, Herbert von Karajan.
Dale Clevenger: “I played for about 20 minutes. That’s a long audition.”
Gerald Stein: “And I would think, an intimidating one, too. That is, if one were inclined to be intimidated.”
Dale Clevenger: “That’s the key. I wanted to show them what I could do. I was not worried too much about intimidation.”
When the audition was over, Herbert von Karajan told the young performer that he played “very well,” but that he didn’t match “the tone” of the Berlin horn section; in effect, didn’t fit their sound. “But,” said Karajan, “you will have a fine job one day.”
Karajan was right. In January, 1966, Clevenger would win the competition to become the Principal Horn player of the Chicago Symphony. But not before failing to become a permanent member of the orchestras in New Orleans, Dallas, the New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh, the Metropolitan Opera, and even his first try at the CSO in 1965.
I asked him how one deals with those kinds of defeats. He then proceeded to tell me about a Boston Symphony horn player who had only gotten that job on his 48th professional audition:
Dale Clevenger: “How do you stick it out? How do you do that? Would I have done that? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. There are a lot of people who play five to 15 auditions (before they win a big one). I played 9 or 10. It didn’t affect my ego. You just keep going. (For example), how can an actor be an actor unless he is used to the failure to get jobs? It’s not possible. You have to try to find the positive in that situation.”
Not to mention lots of practice to keep improving.
In the course of our long conversation, I also talked to the virtuoso about his coming departure from the CSO. And, he told me that he’d written a farewell letter to his colleagues. We’d arrived at a the second life lesson — about gratitude and saying goodbye.
If there is a more graceful way to leave the stage, I don’t know it; especially his quotation of a line from the vocal text of Mahler’s 8th Symphony, borrowed by Mahler from Goethe, which is perhaps the best description I’ve ever heard applied to a life devoted to recreating that which is indescribable: the music of the great composers.
February 12, 2013
My dear friends and colleagues of the CSO,
One of the most euphoric days of my life was the day I was engaged to play solo horn in this great and classic orchestra. All of you know exactly that feeling. To quote Mahler in the 8th Symphony, “Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist’s getan” (“What cannot be described with words, we have done”). I have been so fortunate for forty-eight seasons to do just that. It is with incredible bitter-sweetness, joy, and sorrow that I announce to you that at the end of June I plan to retire from this amazing Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I am the most fortunate and grateful musician ever to have played here, the elite of the elite of orchestras. This will end an amazing tenure, but retiring from music I am not. Indiana University has engaged me to be a Professor of Horn starting August 1, 2013.
You are truly some of the finest musicians on the planet. To have had the pleasure and privilege of making music and sharing the stage with you in thousands of concerts is a sweet memory I shall cherish to my grave. Please, I encourage you all to do everything possible in your power the keep my Chicago Symphony Orchestra “the best of the best!”
A very heart-felt thank you for these wonderful years,
Wonderful years, too, for those of us who just listened. Thank you, Dale. And thanks for the lessons.