What makes a horn section great? How is it that something like the “Chicago sound” comes about? What is the “Chicago sound?” In January, I decided to see what I could do to find out.
I arrived in Chicago after a long day of driving from Cincinnati. My former teacher, Laura Guili, was generous enough to let me stay with her during my time in Chicago. I had a wonderful time catching up, and meeting her delightful cats! No matter how long I am away from the Chicago area, it always feels like home when I come back.
The next day I had my lesson with Dale Clevenger. I had been looking forward to this – as I mentioned in my last entry, Clevenger was one of the first horn players after whom I tried to model my sound. I had been listening to his recordings for years, and always admired the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the whole. So, naturally, I hit every red light on the way to his house for my lesson. Thankfully I managed to arrive on time. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little apprehensive. Clevenger is widely known and admired for both his solo and ensemble performing as well as his conducting and teaching abilities. He performed with the likes of Arnold Jacobs and Adolph Herseth for decades, and has been the principal horn in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1966. I was extremely grateful to have this opportunity to learn more about his playing.
My lesson with Mr. Clevenger provided me with a wealth of information. We talked for nearly an hour about the development of a section’s sound, an extremely complex thing to describe.
I began the interview with a broad question: How would you describe the Chicago horn sound, as distinct from other orchestras? Mr. Clevenger thought for a moment. “To approach this project just arbitrarily as a ‘horn sound’ is a little bit limiting,” he replied. “It’s a process. It’s not something that you set out to do. I didn’t come to Chicago saying, ‘I’m going to play with this sound.’” The creation of a specific approach is instead, as Clevenger puts it, “a developing art,” and the Chicago brass sound has been developing for decades.
But how did this come about? “I am a product of my conditioning. Pure and simple,” said Clevenger. He described his early influences, listening to records of symphony orchestras, and emphasized the importance of attending live concerts on a regular basis while he studied at Carnegie Mellon. “I heard very few live concerts until I got to Pittsburgh and studied with my teacher,” he said. “Then I heard the Pittsburgh Symphony twice every week for four years. I went to every concert twice. It was just not an option to do otherwise. If they were playing, I was there.” This, in conjunction with his studies at Carnegie Mellon, no doubt influenced Clevenger’s playing. In addition, he added that he had always admired the Viennese sound. “One of my favorite horn players and horn sounds was Roland Berger, with the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s just magic, his sound.”
Clevenger also mentioned his admiration for Frank Brouk, with whom he played when he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I sat next to Frank Brouk when he was assisting me my first day in the orchestra. And I heard this sound come out of him, and I said to myself, ‘I have to sound like that.’ It’s just fantastic. He was an unsung hero, Frank Brouk.” Although I have been unable to find any recordings of Frank Brouk online, I was able to find other descriptions of his sound. In Brouk’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune, published in May 2004, Norman Schweikert described Brouk’s ‘“gorgeous tone.’” ‘“Frank…had that melted butter quality of tone, in the true Bohemian tradition,”’ Schweikert continued.
In addition to this fellow section member, Clevenger was further inspired by his colleagues outside of the horn section. He performed with tuba player Arnold Jacobs and trumpet player Adolph Herseth, both brilliant performers and teachers, for decades. Describing Herseth’s playing, Clevenger said, “You had to hear it live and sit next to it to believe it. It was just always right. Everything that he did always seemed just right. Arnold Jacobs was on the bottom end of the brass, and it was phenomenal all the time. It was wonderful. Thirty-five years I get to play with both of these guys. And that affects you!”
With all of these influences in mind, how does a principal player’s approach affect the section? “If a person wants to play in a certain section then they at least tacitly agree to sound as much as they can like the principal,” said Clevenger. The hornist’s style becomes evident through his or her playing, although some beginning principal players try to verbally “put a stamp on” the sound. “It’s more important to do it musically,” said Clevenger.
To Clevenger, one of the most important aspects of the Chicago horn sound is its flexibility. “I don’t play Mozart like I play certain French music like I play Brahms like I play Bruckner or Strauss. It’s all different…one of the nicest comments that I’ve ever gotten from anybody…was, ‘Wow, you sound like a different horn player even in the same piece!”’ This versatility was evident later in my lesson, when we worked on excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Clevenger demonstrated various approaches to the sound using different horn positions (on or off the leg and at various angles off the leg) as well as varying tone qualities and air speeds. Clearly, there are numerous ways to approach every piece, and the Chicago section values the ability to adapt its sound to different works.
One of the most important things Clevenger stressed was the limited ways in which horn sound is described. “Unfortunately, the world of horn has two basic words, which is very limiting on horn sound, and it’s ‘bright’ and ‘dark.’” I have noticed this myself. In describing a player’s sound, these seem to be the first words people use. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to put such a complex idea into words, but there is so much beyond these simple qualities of sound. So, near the end of our lesson, Clevenger charged me with a new challenge for the project. “Debunk, as best you can, the myth that there are only ‘bright’ and ‘dark’ horn sounds.”
I learned a great deal from this first journey for the Horns Across America Project. Dale Clevenger’s perspective has given me a new outlook on how to approach the origins of a section sound. “The sound of an orchestra is like talking about personality – the personality of an orchestra… The persona of players. It’s a combination of where these people study, of all of their conditioning, and how they arrive at the way they sound, and the way they present themselves in an audition and how they continue to develop.” I look forward to exploring more orchestras and understanding the complexities of this living and constantly developing art.