What happens when the CSO and a star principal like Alex Klein part company?
Alex Klein of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2016.
Last week’s dramatic news, which the Tribune reported exclusively, that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has denied tenure to principal oboe Alex Klein, has prompted much buzz in the classical music cybersphere.
The Brazilian-born oboist’s failure to emerge from his first probationary year with a contract as permanent member of the CSO marked a sad and surprising end to what looked like a triumph of will over physical adversity.
Klein, one of the world’s leading solo and orchestral oboists, had fought his way back from focal hand dystonia, a nerve condition that forced him to step down as the tenured first oboe of the CSO once before, in 2004. He was initially hired by Daniel Barenboim in 1995 and rehired by Riccardo Muti in 2016, following a proactive period of technical adjustments that appeared to have kept the dystonia at bay and allowed him to completely fulfill the demands of a high-profile symphonic post.
What went wrong? The full answer may not be known, if at all, until all parties choose to speak on the record. Of greater overall importance is what the Klein affair reveals about the importance of the first-chair oboe to the woodwind choir, not to mention the light it casts on the delicate internal dynamic, both artistic and personal, that obtains at major symphony orchestras, each fiercely protective of its particular culture.
First of all, it’s rare, but not unheard of, for a CSO player not to receive tenure following the two-year probationary period every new orchestra member must undergo. No such denial of tenure occurred during Georg Solti’s 22 seasons as music director and only four times during Barenboim’s 15 seasons.
The most recent first-chair player to have been denied tenure was Craig Morris, who held the principal trumpet chair for two probationary years as successor to the legendary Adolph Herseth. Morris left in 2003.
Of the 22 CSO musicians hired by Muti from 2009 (when he was music director designate) to the present, six currently hold principal positions, according to spokeswoman Eileen Chambers.
Many people were hoping Klein’s return to the Chicago Symphony, after a 12-year absence, would mark a return to stability (if not glory) in the woodwind choir after various first-chair players went elsewhere and were replaced following Muti’s "official" arrival in 2010. Klein was expected to be the last jewel in a crown that already boasted three superb principals — Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson on flute, Stephen Williamson on clarinet and Keith Buncke on bassoon.
The CSO hired Klein with full awareness of his disability but also with the assumption, on both sides, that he would be able to fulfill his principal’s duties despite it. He diligently made technical adjustments and even modified the keys on his oboe to keep the focal dystonia — which affected only two fingers on his left hand — under control, he told the Tribune in a 2016 interview.
Over the eight months of his probation, he would play some concerts without audible problems and others that were problematic. A pattern of inconsistency began to emerge. Other wind players were finding it difficult to match the oboe’s sometimes painfully variable pitch, sources say.
That can create an untenable situation in an orchestra, according to veteran orchestra musicians.
"The prominence of the oboe in woodwind tutti passages makes it especially important that the principal oboe produce accurate pitch intervals," says Judith Kulb, principal oboe of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. "If the principal oboe does not play intervals in tune, the woodwind section must adjust to the inaccuracy." That, she says, can have a "cascading" effect on the playing of other principal and section players, hampering their ability to play freely, and with confidence and security.
What’s more, the big, forceful sound Klein would produce for, say, Strauss’ "Don Juan," was not appropriate for every symphonic work. Sometimes there was a disconnect between the oboe sound and Muti’s signature insistence on ultrafine dynamic gradations, especially in passages marked dolce (sweetly and softly).
Klein wrote to CSO colleagues via email on April 16: "If I practice too much, I get tendinitis and can’t play in the orchestra, so practicing time needs to be carefully calculated." Perhaps it wasn’t calculated carefully enough.
In any case, meetings between Klein and the tenure review committee were called; concerns were aired, explanations given, and suggestions for improvement offered. Ultimately, whatever changes were made were deemed insufficient. As one player later told the Tribune, "It’s up to a new member to accommodate to the rest of the orchestra, not the other way around."
After Klein was informed, one day before the contractual deadline of April 15, that he was to be denied tenure, he refused to resign. He attempted to rally support from within the orchestra. Muti apparently had made up his mind long before. Klein’s final performance as principal oboe was a children’s concert April 28.
Music directors know they risk alienating members of their orchestras when they elect not to hire full-time tenured players some of those members are known to favor. On the other hand, music directors realize they risk far more if they go against their artistic consciences to allow problems to persist that could have serious consequences for the orchestra’s playing and morale going forward. For Muti it was a matter of upholding what he believed are the best interests of a world-class institution.
It’s the principal oboe’s job to tune the rest of the winds and brass by sounding an "A" at the beginning of each concert. But his or her importance to the ensemble goes well beyond that, explains Robert Morgan, assistant principal oboe and solo English horn of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and a member of Rembrandt Chamber Musicians.
"Often the principal oboe is expected to be an inspirational leader," Morgan says, citing several legendary principal oboists of major American orchestras — Ray Still of the CSO; Marc Lifschey and John Mack of the Cleveland Orchestra; Harold Gomberg of the New York Philharmonic; and Marcel Tabuteau of the Philadelphia Orchestra. These first-chair men were expected to provide such leadership and "help create a cohesive woodwind section." And they did.
Morgan says that responsibility has shifted in today’s top orchestras.
Nowadays, "It’s up to all the principals in the woodwind section to create a cohesive whole," he observes. "No relationship in an orchestra is always perfect, but it’s up to (in particular) the principals to work together for the common musical good."
Klein’s musical and artistic credentials for holding an important orchestral post clearly are strong, or he wouldn’t have been hired twice for the same principal post. He has given significant service to the CSO. Having made a valiant effort to overcome the limitations his disability placed on his playing ability, he is entitled to leave with dignity.
Before choosing his successor (auditions are expected to begin this fall), the CSO will want to cast a wide net. There is no shortage of eminently qualified candidates, but, as the last eight months have demonstrated, there always is a host of factors weighing on the granting of tenure that can only be determined during a period of careful, closely monitored probation.
Sharps and flats
•Declan McGovern, the Ireland-born former vice president of orchestra operations and general manager of the Pittsburgh Symphony, has been named to succeed Karen Fishman as executive director of Music of the Baroque, effective July 10.
•The Pacifica Quartet is undergoing its first personnel change in 17 years. Violinist Austin Hartman and violist Guy Ben-Ziony will replace violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson and violist Masumi Per Rostad, respectively, at the end of the current season.
Hartman and Ben-Ziony also will join Pacifica violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos as faculty members at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, as of Aug. 1.
The quartet’s first Chicago-area appearances in its new configuration will be Sept. 1-3 at Ravinia, where it will perform all 16 Beethoven string quartets as a cycle of five concerts.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.
Check out the latest movie reviews from Michael Phillips and the Chicago Tribune.
Check out reviews for all new music releases from Tribune music critic Greg Kot.