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Introducing Senior Artist VIP



Larry Combs - Solo Clarinetist Emeritus in the Chicago Symphony;  Teacher at DePaul University, and Renowned


 Soloist, Chamber Music Artist, and Jazz Artist



UTube tribute:




               Larry Combs is one of the world's leading orchestral clarinetists, is active in chamber music, and plays on the busy Chicago jazz scene.


               He began to play clarinet in Charleston at the age of ten and by the time he was thirteen had a strong enough technique and reputation that he was regularly asked by the Charleston Symphony to play with them when an additional clarinet was needed. By the time he was sixteen, he was the orchestra's principal clarinetist.


              His teenage years were not primarily devoted to classical music, for he played wherever he could: county fairs, visiting circus bands, dance bands, and jazz sessions. While still in high school he had a clarinet quintet, which entered the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, a nationwide television program. The group placed second on the show, after a one-legged tap dancer.


              In the summers he attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. This chance to work with professional musicians and the most talented musicians from across the United States in his age group led him to choose music as his career. In autumn of 1957, he entered the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.


             At Rochester he was a pupil of Stanley Hasty, a leading teacher of the instrument. His studies with Hasty were wide ranging, covering interpretation of various styles and genres of music and included attending each weekly concert of the Rochester Philharmonic with a view to observing and noting how Hasty performed in each of the orchestral works presented.


            Upon graduation from Eastman, Combs joined the New Orleans Philharmonic as third clarinet/bass clarinet player. This employment was interrupted by his conscription for military service. He was in the Army for three years. After his recruit training he was posted to West Point, New York, and assigned to be a member of the United States Military Academy Band. He remained at that post for the remainder of his army service.


             West Point's location a few miles up the Hudson River from New York City enabled him to travel there every other week for continuing studies with clarinetist Leon Russianoff. The New Orleans Philharmonic welcomed him back at the conclusion of his enlistment, this time as the orchestra's principal (solo) clarinetist. In 1968, Combs became Principal of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra.

              In 1974 he joined the clarinet section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then as ever since generally considered the top of the orchestral profession in the United States, if not the world. In 1978 the orchestra's music director appointed him Principal Clarinet. As such, Combs can be heard playing on two decades' worth of Chicago Symphony Orchestra records in virtually every important solo clarinet passage.


              He is married to Gail Williams, a French horn player in the Chicago Symphony. He, Williams, and other members of the orchestra have formed the Chicago Chamber Musicians, a group of fourteen instrumentalists, predominantly members of the CSO, who form a pool for the presentation of regular chamber music concerts for varying groupings of instruments. The CSO's music director, Daniel Barenboim, occasionally joined them as pianist. Others who have joined in concerts with the CCM include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conductor-pianist Christoph Eschenbach, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Smithsonian Chamber Players.


             Combs is also a founder and member of the Combs-Novak Sextet, a jazz group that frequently plays in clubs in Chicago and in 1999 was a headliner at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Chicago music commentators liken his sound and fluency to that of jazz great Benny Goodman.


              In 2009, he was honorably inducted into the West Virginia Hall of Fame for his legendary accomplishments in Charleston, where he grew up, awarded by VIP Conductor Grant Cooper, Music Director of the West Virginia Symphony.


           Mr Combs plays a LeBlanc "Opus" model clarinet.


Accalaides at his retirement from the Chicago Symphony

               Listen as Larry Combs shapes an arching phrase of a Bruckner symphony, making it sound as if were riding an infinite stream of air. Listen as he slyly teases the jazzy syncopations of the song "Chicago," a signature encore he has played many times with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at home and on tour.

At those times, and on countless other occasions, you will agree with Combs' colleague, CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy, that Combs is "the leading player of his generation of clarinetists."

              The Larry Combs era at the Chicago Symphony effectively drew to a close last week when he performed his final concert as the CSO's principal clarinet. After a 34-year tenure that has spanned exactly half his life, he is giving up the first chair, although he plans to continue performing as a section "ringer" during the CSO's fall European tour and on other occasions.

So why did the clarinetist, one of the pillars of the CSO's celebrated woodwind choir, decide to pack it in while still, by general consent, playing at the top of his game?

"When I started thinking about retiring about two years ago, I also thought about how active I've been since coming to Chicago," Combs told me during a recent rehearsal break. "I realized I've gotten to an age -- 68 -- where maybe it might be wise to put on the brakes a little bit."

             Combs was honored earlier this month at a donor appreciation concert by members of the orchestra. Also, at the season's penultimate subscription concert three nights later, he received the Theodore Thomas Medallion for Distinguished Service, an award given to all retiring members of the ensemble.

            Still, the parting gift Combs no doubt will treasure the most is an ebony music stand presented him by his CSO section colleagues John Bruce Yeh, Gregory Smith and J. Lawrie Bloom. Affixed to the stand is a plaque bearing the inscription "in appreciation of our years together."


            Clarinetists tend to be a rather laid-back breed of symphonic musicians -- not as fun-loving or as gregarious as horn players, nor as neurotic as oboe players, who are perpetually searching for the perfect reed to play on.

In conversation Combs certainly fits the stereotype, but, as with all such labels, it fails to account for what's inside. Certainly it doesn't begin to describe Combs the tireless workaholic; the thoughtful, serious and caring musician; or the model section leader and colleague, greatly admired by CSO players young and old.

           "Larry has earned authority by virtue of his integrity and his respect for the music, beyond his respect for himself," says Mulcahy. "He has very strong opinions but what he doesn't have is a huge ego. Whenever he plays the clarinet you really don't think about the instrument -- you really think about his voice as a musician."

            Longtime CSO principal horn Dale Clevenger, a friend and colleague for nearly 50 years, praises Combs' "infinite control of his instrument technically" and his ability "to anticipate what a conductor wants before having to be asked."


           Yeh, the CSO's assistant principal clarinet and E-flat clarinet, considers Combs' retirement the closing of a major chapter in the CSO's history, given the fact that the clarinet choir is the only remaining section in the orchestra to have been entirely engaged by former music director Georg Solti.

Mutual admiration

          "From the beginning Larry was a musical inspiration to me and a generous, sensitive and understanding colleague," says Yeh, who will take over as principal clarinet at least until a permanent replacement is engaged following auditions this fall and/or in January 2009.

          Combs is quick to return the compliment.

          "For certain the thing I'll miss the most is my colleagues and the satisfaction of sitting down and talking to them during rehearsal breaks," he says. "I consider them to be a very fine group of people to make music with, to learn from and to be friends with."

          When Combs wasn't rehearsing and performing with the CSO, he kept exceedingly busy as a chamber musician and teacher. Now that he has given up his full-time duties with the orchestra, he will have more time to devote to those other musical pursuits.

           He plans to work even more extensively with the Chicago Chamber Musicians, of which he has been a director since co-founding the ensemble in 1986. He also plans to increase his teaching load at the DePaul University School of Music, where he has been a faculty member since 1981.

           Among the happiest memories he is taking away, Combs says, are those of the performances he gave here with Daniel Barenboim, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other musicians during Barenboim's tenure. He also speaks warmly of the concert performances of Wagner's opera "Die Meistersinger" Solti conducted and recorded here in 1995, two years before his death.




New Information Under development 



Message from Larry Combs


Agendas and Performance and Teaching Philosophy


Upcoming Events and Workshops 


Recordings linked here and many more to gallery





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Revised: January 12, 2019