Bringing it all back home: Daniel Gingrich lauds his early roots in Morton East

Ahead of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's community concert in 2013, Daniel Gingrich rehearses on the stage of historic Chodl Auditorium at Morton East High School.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

When Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bring Beethoven’s beloved Fifth and Eighth Symphonies to Morton East High School’s Chodl Auditorium on Jan. 14 for one of the CSO’s annual free community concerts, they will be visiting the Cicero-Berwyn-Stickney area that nourished the astonishingly fast rise of Daniel Gingrich, the CSO’s associate principal horn.

He was in the first grade in Stickney when his father took him to play for Mr. Wilkins, who ran three levels of elementary school bands of students from seven different schools in the Morton district. The teacher must have heard something, because the youngster began to study with Wilkins privately, and he was allowed to join an entry-level band right away with kids aged 8 and 9. To attend the weekly rehearsals, he would take the early school bus.

His parents were church musicians, his father a singer who taught the kids to harmonize, and his older brother a trumpeter whose instrument his sibling coveted. “I thought of it as ‘ours,’ ” he recalled with a rueful chuckle. “So one day my dad stopped at a pawnshop on his way home from work and picked up a mellophone for 15 bucks, just for me.”

From a distance, the mellophone looks like a miniature French horn. It's rather popular in marching bands, and it is easy enough for a child to handle. The young Gingrich took to it quickly. Bandmaster Wilkins, who played a horn himself, had a habit of conducting with one hand while hoisting the horn to his lips with the other, encouraging the kids to join in with him. “It was a great way to bring us along,” said Gingrich of the way they learned to blend in with Wilkins’ sound.

He thrived in the environment: “The music programs at the schools were incredible. And since the Morton East and West school districts were combined for music, they had approximately twice as many students to draw from to make up the ensembles. They had three bands from the two schools, and we rehearsed every morning as a class in our own school, and together weekly in the evening.”

Growing up in the Morton program, Gingrich obtained an actual French horn and genuine skill along the way. Then came the day when, at age 16, he he attended his first Chicago Symphony concert at Orchestra Hall.

“It was Good Friday, 1969, so I could actually go downtown to hear them without cutting classes at school,” Gingrich recalled. “It was Georg Solti conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony. I remember walking up the stairs into the balcony and then hearing that sound. It was overwhelming. I was completely blown away. I thought, well, I really want this. From that moment I decided I was going to do everything I could do to be able to make this music my life.

“I got serious very quickly after that,” Gingrich said. “I had a friend three years older who had played in the high school band and orchestra with me and was in his first year of college by then. In 1969, he was already playing in the Chicago Civic Orchestra [the CSO’s training orchestra for emerging professionals], and so he said to me, ‘You’re going to audition.’ He got me the repertoire list. He got me the music. And he said, ‘Practice this.’ And so I did. And I got in. To get into Civic at 16 was unusual, but I had gotten all that good training at Morton, which was a big factor.”

At Civic rehearsals downtown in those days, the celebrated CSO principal horn Dale Clevenger led the weekly training of the horn section. “It was a great opportunity to be doing that repertoire, and doing it at a pace that is so much faster than the usual school experience, and then to be thrown together with those other highly motivated musicians. I saw Dale’s passion for music first hand. It is one thing to attend a concert and another to see up close how much he got really excited about everything.”

Soon Gingrich was taking horn lessons with the CSO’s third horn, Richard Oldberg, too. After high school, Gingrich enrolled at Roosevelt University’s Chicago Musical College, just down the street from Orchestra Hall, and he gradually began to acquire professional experience.

He got the occasional offstage gig at Lyric Opera. His friends tapped into some freelance backing, from a trust fund set up by the local musicians’ union, to pay for chamber concerts for kids and needy audiences. “I played in three woodwind quintets and a brass quintet, and I’d do three or four or five sets of children’s concerts every week,” Gingrich said of those days. Bit by bit, his resume grew.

In his third semester at Roosevelt, he heard about an audition for the Rochester (N.Y.) Philharmonic. He was just a sophomore. “But everybody was telling me you should take an audition for practice because that’s what you’ll have to do to get a job. And so I did.” He won.

Gingrich left Roosevelt to take that first orchestra job, which started in 1973, but that was hardly the end of his early moves. “My intention was to continue schooling at the Eastman School of Music, which is in the same building as the Rochester Philharmonic. But then there was an audition at the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.” Gingrich won that, too, joining that orchestra for the 1974-75 season.

And then, like clockwork, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had an opening in the horn section. Gingrich decided to give it a try. Again, he won. Georg Solti, music director at the time, hired him in 1975.

Chicago was where Gingrich would stay. Daniel Barenboim promoted him to associate principal horn in 2002. Riccardo Muti promoted him yet again in 2013, naming him acting principal horn when the legendary principal horn Dale Clevenger retired. (Clevenger passed away on Jan. 5, 2022.)

Gingrich would play the principal horn parts for the CSO while Muti and the orchestra undertook an extended search for a principal horn to succeed Clevenger. David Cooper was ultimately named in 2019, but that search took six years, during which time Muti relied on Gingrich to lead.

In 2018, backstage at Carnegie Hall, after a rehearsal during the CSO’s East Coast tour, Muti spoke about this stretch, acknowledging that it was a very long time to be in a transitional phase. But he had learned that Gingrich was someone he could count on: “He is modest, he is fantastic, and he is doing everything at the highest level,” Muti said at the time. “I worry what happens if someone gets sick because we are really, really tight, and it must be someone of the utmost reliability. But these are not positions that you can fill easily.” One of the New York reviews from that 2018 tour singled out the Brahms Second Symphony and Gingrich, “who acquitted himself marvelously in the challenging legatos.”

In gratitude for Gingrich’s long interim service, Muti paused during a November 2019 concert to award a plaque naming him “honorary principal horn for life.” It took Gingrich completely by surprise.

Now Gingrich comes full circle with an all-Beethoven concert in the neighborhood that nurtured him, and to Chodl Auditorium itself. As it turns out, Chodl was the site of Gingrich's first public concerto performance — Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2, K. 417 — with his high school band in early 1970. He was 16, and on his way.

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