Clarinetist  Larry  Combs

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


See my interviews with Miklós Rózsa, George Rochberg, and Gunther Schuller

One of the world’s leading orchestral clarinetists, Larry Combs (born December 31, 1939) has also been active in chamber music, and the Chicago jazz scene.

He began to play clarinet in Charleston West Virginia at the age of 10, and by the time he was 13 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. At age 16, he was the orchestra's principal clarinetist. While in high school his clarinet quintet entered the nationally televised Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour. The group placed second on the show, after a one-legged tap dancer.

During the summer, he attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, MI, where he worked with professional musicians and the most talented musicians from around the country in his age group. In 1957, he entered the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where he was a pupil of Stanley Hasty. He received a bachelor of music degree with distinction as well as the Performer's Certificate in 1961.

After graduating from Eastman, Combs joined the New Orleans Philharmonic as third clarinet/bass clarinet player. This job was interrupted when he was drafted into the military. After basic training he was sent to West Point and assigned to be a member of the United States Military Academy Band. This enabled him to travel to New York City for continuing studies with clarinetist Leon Russianoff. The New Orleans Philharmonic welcomed him back after his enlistment, this time as the orchestra’s principal clarinetist.

In 1968, Combs became Principal of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and also played with the Santa Fe Opera. In 1974, he joined the clarinet section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and in 1978, the orchestra’s music director, Sir Georg Solti, appointed him Principal Clarinet. He has appeared as soloist with the orchestra on many occasions, and can be heard playing on two decades' worth of the CSO records in virtually every important solo clarinet passage. He has won two Grammy Awards for Best Chamber Music Performance.  He retired from the CSO following the 2007-2008 season to spend more time teaching clarinet students at DePaul University. He retired from DePaul in 2018.

Combs is also a founding member of the Chicago Chamber Musicians. He has performed the Brahms Trio in A minor with Daniel Barenboim and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and has appeared at the Ravinia Festival with its musical director, Christoph Eschenbach. Other appearances have been with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Chamber Players.

Also a jazz player, his Combs-Novak Sextet was one of the headliners at the 1999 Chicago Jazz Festival and Combs recorded an album with jazz clarinetist Eddie Daniels (Crossing the Line). Combs is a clinician for the G. Leblanc Company, which makes the Opus II clarinets he helped to design, and the Larry Combs models of clarinet mouthpieces.

==  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In late February of 2005, we met backstage at Orchestra Hall during a concert of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It was conducted by Alan Gilbert, and Combs had played in the first work, Exquisite Corpse of Anders Hillborg.  We then utilized a rehearsal room downstairs during the second work, the Dvořák Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham, and the intermission.  He needed to return to the stage for the Symphony #4 of Martinů, so we had to watch our time carefully . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Does it always feel good coming off stage after a performance?

Larry Combs:   [Thinks a moment]  Usually, depending on how things went.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  Can’t one assume that on your level things always go right?

Combs:   One cannot assume that in any way.  You can hope for that, but assume, no.  That would be a big mistake.

BD:   Can we assume that most of the time things go right?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with James Cohn, and Morton Gould.]

Combs:   It’s a matter of degree.  Let’s just say that most of the time nothing’s perfect, and what we try to go toward is, if not perfection, somewhat near it.  But for sure it can never be taken for granted.

BD:   Is there ever a time that it hits that perfection level?

Combs:   I doubt it.

BD:   Is that good thing?

Combs:   It’s fine, because otherwise we would be automatons, and we would be like the CD that’s put together with scraps of this take and that take, which is not very honest.  Our humanity keeps us honest, as it were.  We are only human, and we can’t play perfect performances, nor should we actually expect to.

BD:   But you keep trying?

Combs:   Actually, we try to keep trying, yes.

BD:   Is there a difference coming off stage after an orchestral performance, as opposed to a concerto performance, or a chamber performance?

Combs:   I’m not aware of any difference, no.

BD:   Can one assume you have more control when it’s a chamber performance, or even a concerto performance?

Combs:   As a soloist, that’s a different matter entirely.  There’s an incredible rise in the responsibility level because it
s your interpretation, and you’re the one who has to make it happen.  You’re on all the time, whereas in the orchestra, if you play a Brahms symphony, the first clarinet may have a solo here and solo there, and the rest of the time they just blend in with the texture.  But when you’re playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, except for a few tutti passages, you’re it!  [Both laugh]  Chamber music is still another level, because there’s no one on a podium waving his stick at you.  You and your colleagues have to come up with something unified, and something that makes sense, and something that sells the music to your listeners in a way that they can understand.

BD:   Does that give you greater regard for the guy waving the stick when you get back into the orchestra?

Combs:   No.  It depends on the guy.  There are some conductors that we play for in spite of what they do, but mostly in our orchestra we have conductors from whom we learn, and from whom we gladly respond to what they’re doing.

BD:   Do you find that most of the conductors understand the woodwind section in general, and the clarinet section in particular?

Combs:   I don’t think it’s possible to generalize about that.  Some do, some don’t.

BD:   Are there times that you have to teach the conductor about the clarinet?

Combs:   You can only do that in a very subtle way, because conductors take a dim view of someone showing them up, or teaching them, or showing other colleagues that there’s something amiss.  So, you try never to do that.

BD:   Not necessarily when something is amiss, but just how glorious the clarinet can sound in a certain passage.

Combs:   The only way you can do that is to somehow bring that off, and to play it in a glorious way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to a concert?

Combs:   [Thinks a moment]  The first thing would be that they manage to stay awake, be alert, and be sensitive to the huge task that the musicians have, which is keeping a line, keeping in balance, keeping the sound beautiful, and keeping a blend.  If an audience is aware of that, and if they’re listening for that, it can be a fascinating experience for them.  We shouldn’t complain, but all too often the audience will tend to sit and let the sound of the orchestra envelop them, and then they don’t really participate very much.  Music, as a means of expression, has to be a two-way stream.  We don’t play music in a vacuum, and we have to find a way to do what we do clearly enough and persuasively enough that it grabs the audience by the collar and says, “Listen to this!  We’re doing something special tonight!”


BD:   Is it your responsibility to make it special, or is it the composer’s responsibility that it is special?

Combs:   Wow!  A little bit of both, but the composer has a lot to do with it.  You can’t take a really uninspired piece and do much with it, but we don’t put very many uninspired pieces on our programming.  We know what we’re getting, and we’re hoping to present something to the audience that is worth listening to.  So, we’re not going to put a dull piece on there.  It happens, but not very often.

BD:   What about new pieces?  When you play a brand-new piece, or a relatively new piece that is just a couple of years old, is it special for you to discover something that is new to you?

Combs:   Yes.  I can’t say that I enjoy, or even like, every new piece that we play, but we must play music of our time.  We must continue to make that an important part of our mission, an important part of our programming.  Some of it is very good, and some is not so good.  Many pieces you don’t ever hear a second time, which is sad in a way, but it’s historically always been that way.  Every composer in Beethoven’s time was not Beethoven.  There were composers who had their pieces played maybe once or twice, and realized
or the powers that be realizedthat this is not very good, so they didn’t play it again.

BD:   Is the public’s judgment always right about a piece not being particularly good?

Combs:   No, of course not.  As you know, even using the example of Beethoven, critics during his life really gave him a hard time.  They said, “This is not music.  This is noise!”

BD:   They’re saying the same thing today of a number of modern composers.

Combs:   Yes, and they’re probably right.

BD:   Are we throwing in a joker by having recordings of practically every new piece, so that fifty or a hundred years from now, people won’t have to wait for another performance?  They can pull it off the shelf and listen to it?

Combs:   That’s true.  Of course, the whole business of recording becomes difficult.  You have to get unions and managements to agree on terms, and you have to get money to back the recording if you’re going to make them commercially available.  It’s really at a low ebb right now, as far as activity goes.  We haven’t been making any recordings to speak of except for a few that are privately funded.
BD:   Does that make you sad?

Combs:   Very much so, because this version of the Chicago Symphony in the past half a dozen years, is, to my way of thinking, in many respects the best version ever, and it’s not being recorded.  There are no radio broadcasts, so all this stuff is gone and will never be recovered.  The last time I did the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, there was no recording.  When we did a program, of which I was particularly fond, of The Nutcracker Suite in the Duke Ellington and Tchaikovsky versions, they were not recorded.  It
s gone.  [Note that of the extant broadcasts, one from 1994 was later issued on CD, and features Combs playing the First Rhapsody of Debussy, conducted by Boulez.  A photo of that set, along with other photos of recordings with Combs can be seen with my interview of John Bruce Yeh.  One other broadcast featuring Combs was from 1979 of the Copland Clarinet Concerto led by Leinsdorf.  That was issued on From the Archives, Volume 2, which is shown at the bottom of this webpage.]


BD:   Do you find the recordings that you made with the Symphony under Solti, and Barenboim, and others, are really landmarks, or are they going to be surpassed by other recordings that come along?

Combs:   Oh, I think if we were recording today, we could surpass many of them.  Some of them are mediocre at best.  I don’t think they’re all terrific.  There are many terrific recordings made from the Solti era onwards, which is all I know about.  We love to go back and listen to the recordings from Reiner’s time, which were so beautifully recorded in this hall.  But I am just very concerned and sad though that we’ve missed so much because we’re not really doing any commercial recording currently.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.  Does it please you that in your lifetime it’s gone from the standard clarinet back to the basset clarinet?

Combs:   Yes.  It’s something that had to happen.  I remember when I was a student studying the piece with my teacher in music school, we discussed the possibility that there were odd things about this concerto that somehow Mozart wouldn’t have done had he had a choice.  Only a few years later, it was discovered that Mozart wrote it for Anton Stadler, who had an instrument which had a four-semitone lower compass.  If you look at the score and all that stuff that’s gotten transposed for the standard instrument, it all makes beautiful sense.  So, although it’s quite playable on the standard traditional-sized clarinet, we must, when possible, play it on the basset clarinet.
BD:   You wouldn’t even accept a recording now, or a performance by a major group with the standard clarinet?  It would have to be a basset clarinet?

Combs:   It should be only with the basset clarinet... although my students have to learn it.  It’s
standard repertoire, and they don’t all have basset clarinets.  None of them do, really.  They’re still relatively rare, although all the makers in the world can produce them for a price.

BD:   Do you make sure that your students at least experience using the basset clarinet?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Dale Clevenger, and Alex Klein.]

Combs:   Not really, but that’s a good idea, because the fingering is a little tricky with the extended notes until you get used to it.

BD:   Is there extra space required for the little fingers?

Combs:   Yes, and one thumb.  Different systems also use different arrangements for the keys.

BD:   As a clarinet player, are you really responsible to be able to understand and play adequately the whole family of clarinets, and basset clarinets?

Combs:   [Thinks a moment]  Usually it depends on the way your particular orchestra section is set up.  For our orchestra, we have four players.  We have a principal, a second, an assistant principal, who plays the E-Flat small clarinet, and we have a bass clarinet player who specializes in that.  All of these players can play the standard soprano clarinet, and from time to time, others are expected to be able to step in and play the E-Flat.  Usually, the bass is only done by the bass player.

BD:   In this orchestra, John Bruce Yeh is the E-Flat player, and he also plays the contra-bass clarinet.  So, he plays the little one and the great big one!

Combs:   He’s a very versatile guy, and he can do all that.

BD:   Not even so much for an orchestra, but just for pride of performance in oneself, shouldn’t any major clarinet player have this kind of versatility?

Combs:   Professional clarinetists at the highest level vary in their interest and curiosity.  Some do, some don’t.  I love playing anything that looks like a clarinet.  My first position in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was E-Flat clarinet, and I played basset horn from time to time in the orchestra.  Over the last nearly twenty years, I’ve played in period instrument groups, using a reproduction of an eighteenth-century clarinet.

BD:   Do they use the same reeds, or different reeds?

Combs:   Those reeds are a little bit smaller, and there is a different fingering system for the different material.  Most instruments from that period are copies, and are made of European boxwood, which is a much lighter wood.  Also, the bore is smaller, so the sound is much lighter, and much more transparent.

BD:   Does that make it so you can be more subtle?

Combs:   In a way, yes.  Some things are actually easier.  The speaking of the instrument is much more quick, and articulation can be much more light.  Last year, which was the last time I played the period instrument, I was out in San Francisco playing in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.  They did Christ on the Mount of Olives of Beethoven, and the Schubert Unfinished Symphony all on period instruments, and it was a delightful experience.  I’m glad I had a chance to do that.  When you play a period clarinet in the right context, it informs you a little bit about what the clarinet maybe can or should be doing in that music.  Rather than just playing Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart with the same sound, maybe we need to think in terms of changing our sound a little bit for various eras, or kinds of music.

BD:   Should you be bringing old instruments into the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

Combs:   No.  There was a time when I thought that would be an interesting thing, but you can’t impose that.  You have to be dealing with people who are keen to do it, and who are interested in doing that.  If you said, “Okay, tomorrow we’re going to play Mozart symphonies, so everybody bring your eighteenth-century instruments,” it’s not going to happen.  [Both laugh]

BD:   What if you could get all of the flutes, and the clarinets, and the bassoons, and everybody to do it?

Combs:   A couple of European orchestras are doing something like that.  I saw the Scottish Chamber Orchestra a couple of summers ago at Ravinia, and they were playing basically modern instruments except for the horns, and the trumpets, and the timpani.  They were playing the valveless natural trumpets, and the natural horns, and the timpani was played with wooden sticks.  It was a very nice effect
, but it was a just a hybrid and I see nothing wrong with that.  But it would be opening a can of worms to suggest doing that in the Chicago Symphony.  [More laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do the composers today understand and know how to write for the clarinet?

Combs:   [Thinks a moment]  Not to any great degree.  Composers’ philosophy with regard to technical writing and difficulty is that they feel they should be able to write anything, and expect the player to come up with a solution.  Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t.  [Musing a bit]  Perhaps we should go back to the time when someone like Mozart seemed to innately understand the best aspects of every instrument, and knew exactly what to write.  When you play the clarinet music of Mozart, you have very much the feeling that he must have known how to play this instrument.
BD:   As you mentioned, he was friends with Anton Stadler.

Combs:   Yes, but he is an example of a composer who naturally wrote well for the instrument.  Even Schoenberg, whose music is thorny and difficult, never wrote anything that’s unplayable.  But especially lately, composers think they can write anything in any register with any combination of notes, and expect us to be able to figure it out.

BD:   Should the composers today be obligated to take a few clarinet lessons, and a few flute lessons, and a few violin lessons?

Combs:   At least one great composer did just that
Hindemith.  He learned to play every instrument, and you can tell this in his music.  It’s all playable and accessible.

BD:   What other advice do you have for composers about writing either for clarinet in the orchestra, or for the clarinet as solo?

Combs:   Short of learning the instrument themselves
which is probably not going to happenI would say just use a certain amount of caution in registration, and not write things so high that they are not playable.  Also, don’t assume that if you can plonk it out on your computer that it’s going to be playable by a wind player.  Don’t neglect to think about the span of one breath, because you take a breath and you begin to play.  Then, at some point, no matter how good your breath control is, you’ll run out of wind, and some composers simply don’t acknowledge that.  They just keep going.

BD:   They probably have heard about ‘circular breathing’.

Combs:   There’s that, but it is something I never learned to do [laughs], although most of my students can do it.

BD:   Are you pleased with how your students are progressing?

Combs:   Yes!  I am fortunate enough to get really highly-evolved students.  They already play quite well when I get to teach them, and mostly they’re on the graduate level.

BD:   This is technical evolution.  Is this also musical evolution?

Combs:   Hopefully it
s both side by side.  But I’ve been fortunate enough to have students who have actually joined the professional fields, and are playing in orchestras here and there.  Its not a huge number, but I’ve never taught huge numbers of students being busy with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Chicago Chamber Musicians.  My current group at DePaul is five players, and that’s about all I can fit into my week.  But we just had some auditions for graduate school for next year at DePaul, and we listened to eight players who were all good.

BD:   Then how do you pick one over the other?

Combs:   You use your instincts with regard to what is special about this person that they might be able to develop, and how you can help them develop that.  Sometimes you pick right, and sometimes you wish you hadn’t.  [Both laugh]   But mostly I’ve had really positive experience with students I teach.

BD:   What about training someone specifically who wants to be a principal clarinet in a major orchestra?  Is there something special that they have to be, or do, or must you just hope that they rise to the top?


Combs:   [Thinks a moment]  There are certain things that are necessary.  The first thing that I try to emphasize is that they must have some alternative plan in mind, because the prospects of getting an orchestral playing job at which one can more or less make a living, are slim to none.  There are those individuals who want it badly enough, and who can’t imagine doing anything else, and then you must help them as best as you can.  But I always try to caution them that it may not work out right away, so they’d better think of something else they can do.  When I was a student, I had a double major in music education and clarinet, because I had no idea I’d end up doing what I ended up doing.  Students must possess all of the pre-requisite technical equipment one needs
a beautiful sound, an understanding of music-making style, a range of articulationsplus they must have something special that captures the listener.  When you go to an orchestra to take an audition, usually you’re behind a screen, and no one can see who you are.  So you have to really tell a very special story with every concerto or excerpt that you play, because there will be someone there who can do everything, plus have that extra little something.  In order to be successful, you have to be that one.  You have to be virtually perfect technically, plus you have to sound beautiful and engaging.  You have to show an understanding of the knowledge of the music of the clarinet part that you’re playing for your auditionhow it fits into the scoreand you have to say something special without getting weird, or far out, or out of balance.  It’s a very strict discipline.  We’ve all heard soloists who play it a slightly outrageous way, and have success with it, but you won’t have success in an orchestra that way.

BD:   You have to be brilliant, but you have to frame your brilliance?

Combs:   Yes, exactly.  People like to say they want to play outside the box, but they forget to learn the box first.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Combs:   To me it’s the highest form of communication, even more so than speech.  Of course, music we can wrap up in singing, which is more elaborate than speech.  Singing comes from speech, and some of the linguistic bases of what music is, is what makes it special.  If we didn’t have that, the whole concept of speech would disappear, and to me it’s all-encompassing.  It
s almost like a religion.  I hate to use that word, but for many musicians, music is their religion, because it’s such a huge part of their life.  It’s with you a hundred per cent of the time.  When you’re sleeping, when you’re eating, when you’re walking round the street, youre never without music in your brain.
BD:   The music that you play week-to-week with the Chicago Symphony, is that for everyone?

Combs:   That’s a difficult question to answer because it is for some and it isn’t for others.  It would call for a generalization to say so, but over the long haul, if people come to concerts on a fairly regular basis, they’ll mostly experience things that they can absorb and enjoy, and occasionally there’ll be something that they don’t like.  I don’t think it’s possible to develop a set of programs for a whole season that won’t offend somebody at some time.  We read a lot about that, because sometimes we look out and see empty seats where we wish we would not see empty seats, and we wonder if we are playing too much contemporary music.  But I don’t think it would be all that great to play just the few dozen standard pieces over and over and over.  The orchestra would get stale, and the audience would get stale.  Looking at our program for next year, it is very well balanced and very interesting.  But take this Martinů Fourth Symphony that we’re playing in just a few minutes.  We played it once before, back in the 1980s with Leinsdorf, and it’s a delightful piece.  It’s just sparkling, and interesting, and original.  His music is incredibly original.
BD:   Plus, it makes a good impact on the audience.

Combs:   Yes, it does.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Combs:   [Pauses a moment, and sighs]  Not always, no.  I see things happening in our culture that worry me, and I hope it doesn’t get worse.  There seems to be a general dumbing down of in the media, in the newspapers and radio stations.  It seems like there is a falling off of interest in things that are more or less profound.  I don’t understand that.

BD:   In addition to playing the clarinet, you also play the saxophone?

Combs:   Occasionally, but less and less all the time.

BD:   By choice or just by necessity?

Combs:   Actually, I mostly play saxophone when I play jazz, and because my friendship with the jazz clarinet player, Eddie Daniels [shown with Combs on the CD cover], I’ve gotten more interested in playing jazz on the clarinet, which I never did before.  So, now even when I play jazz, I mostly play the clarinet.

BD:   [Here, we stopped for a moment to check the time, and he also noted that he had just passed his 65th birthday.]  Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

Combs:   Absolutely!  I’m having a great time.  I feel good.  My playing is as good as it ever has been, and probably ever will be.

BD:   I assume you keep working at it, and keep improving?

Combs:   Yes, I think so.  I hope so.

BD:   One last question.  Is playing the clarinet fun?

Combs:   Absolutely! It’s some of the best fun you can have.  It can be frustrating....

BD:   Thank you so much for being in the orchestra all these years, and thank you for the chat.

Combs:   My pleasure.



See my interviews with William O. Smith, Richard Rodney Bennett, Shulamit Ran, and Leslie Bassett


See my interviews with Claudio Abbado, Ray Still, Jay Friedman, and Donald Peck

© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in a rehearsal room backstage at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on February 26, 2005.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following April, and again in 2015; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2005, 2007, and 2015.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.