Dale Clevenger, former CSO principal horn, dies at 81

The renowned french horn player passed away in Italy from complications of Waldenstrom’s disease.

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal horn Dale Clevenger.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal horn Dale Clevenger.

Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010

Dale Clevenger, the principal horn who for nearly half a century led the brass section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has died. He was 81.

The renowned french horn player passed away in Italy on Jan. 5 from complications of Waldenstrom’s disease, a statement from his family said. “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,” the statement read, in part.

In a separate statement, CSO music director maestro Riccardo Muti said: “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.”

Mr. Clevenger served as the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra’s music director from 1981-1995, and his career as a conductor boasted appearances with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, the New Japan Philharmonic, and the Roosevelt University Symphony Orchestra, among many others.

Mr. Clevenger was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on July 2, 1940. He would eventually join the CSO at the invitation of music director Jean Martinon in 1966, following positions with Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra and legendary Symphony of the Air, and the Kansas City Philharmonic.

Mr. Clevenger was highly regarded in the classical music world, though his musical prowess extended across various genres including chamber music and jazz. He was a featured soloist on several CSO recordings including the Grammy Award-winning “The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli” with the brass ensembles of the Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras, according to a post on the CSO website. His recording of Strauss’ First Horn Concerto with conductor Daniel Barenboim and the CSO also won a Grammy. He taught at Northwestern University, Roosevelt University and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. 

In a 2003 interview with classical music broadcaster Bruce Duffie, Mr. Clevenger was asked to describe the ultimate purpose of music. He replied: “That the listener, as well as the player, the performer, gets some kind of joy in reproducing these black notes on the page into sound, and that’s reasonably pleasant to listen to. That’s very arbitrary, because what is pleasant at the time of writing or performing may or may not be pleasant years later. Only time will tell that.”

Mr. Clevenger is survived by his wife Giovanna, four children and two granddaughters.

A memorial service is planned for late spring at Christ Church in Winnetka. No further details were given.

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