Thursday, December 13, 2012

Personnel Matters

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been famous for its brass section for a good long time. Now the CSO has a problem in that brass section, as a recently-published article in the Chicago Reader makes clear: Critics in Chicago and NY have noticed that principal horn Dale Clevenger's playing isn't what it used to be. John von Rhein, Lawrence Johnson, and Andrew Patner in Chicago, and Steve Smith in NY, have all remarked on this in published reviews. Andrew Patner is quoted extensively in the Reader article.

Clevenger is a legendary player who has held his position for 44 years; he is now 69 years old. If you click through and read the Reader article and the comments to the article, you'll see that the CSO has several problems on its hands.
  • Clevenger's playing
  • Clevenger's behavior toward women, if the allegations in the comments are true
  • Clevenger's unwillingness to step down
  • Muti's unwillingness to follow the contractually-mandated process for removing Clevenger from his position
This is a sad situation all around. Knowing when it's time to quit takes a particular kind of grace; a musician has to be attuned to his or her own weaknesses, has to have the humility to listen to others, and has to be willing to call it a day. There's an old saw about quitting before people are saying it's time, when they want you to hang around for a while longer.

In San Francisco, Glenn Fischthal stepped down voluntarily several years ago as principal trumpet, finishing his career at SFS as associate principal, because he felt his skills were not what they had been. He retired at the end of the 2011-12 season because he had developed aura migraines. Now, that's grace.

It seems Dale Clevenger thinks he can recover his former skill. Any professional musicians want to weigh in on the likelihood of this? I am doubtful, given Clevenger's age (69) and the exacting demands and known difficulties of the horn.

Further, if Clevenger is a serial harasser of women, he's creating what's known legally as a hostile working environment. Should women joining the orchestra or who are already members have to deal with this? It's the job of the CSO's management to make sure its employees behave themselves.

As for Muti and other conductors: if you're not willing to deal in a forthright manner with players' declining skills, perhaps permanent guest conductor is a better job for you than Music Director. It's tough, but that's what you get paid the big bucks for.


CK Dexter Haven said...

When I saw the CSO at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa earlier this year, the orchestra sounded great -- with Clevenger's playing being the notable exception. It wasn't just bad for Clevenger, it was bad for any horn player in a big professional orchestra.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I saw one of the CSO programs in SF and don't remember a thing about Clevenger....

Henry Holland said...

When Esa-Pekka Salonen took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it was a mess, the Previn years took its toll. Over the years, he managed to vastly improve the woodwind section and the strings, but the brass sections was always a mess. "Play in tune" was often a suggestion, not a rule and the principal horn (name forgotten) was guaranteed to have at least one flub per solo.

I often wish that Pierre Boulez could have come in on a twice-yearly basis and knocked them in to shape. :-)