Chicago Symphony clarinetist John Bruce Yeh finding success with intimate, virtual CSO Sessions concerts

  • John Yeh is the longest-serving clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was hired by the late Sir Georg Solti in 1977.

    John Yeh is the longest-serving clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was hired by the late Sir Georg Solti in 1977. Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography

  • Molly Yeh and John Bruce Yeh were guest soloists with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for a 2013 concert commemorating the centennial of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

    Molly Yeh and John Bruce Yeh were guest soloists with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for a 2013 concert commemorating the centennial of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Courtesy of John Bruce Yeh, 2013

 
 
Updated 10/30/2020 12:50 PM

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra recently canceled more of its regular 2020-21 season through March 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet clarinetist and former Glenview resident John Bruce Yeh and other CSO musicians have been performing at Orchestra Hall this fall.

Nearly seven months after COVID-19 forced live performances to be abruptly shut down on March 12, a weekly series of on-demand CSO Sessions filmed concerts started streaming in October at cso.org/tv.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We started out small," said Yeh, pointing to coronavirus safety measures that have only allowed for tiny ensembles.

"We'll be doing Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet Suite,' but arranged for eight woodwind players," said Yeh, referring to the concert released on Oct. 29.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra clarinetist John Bruce Yeh performs the Stravinsky Octet as part of episode 3 of the virtual CSO Sessions.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra clarinetist John Bruce Yeh performs the Stravinsky Octet as part of episode 3 of the virtual CSO Sessions. - Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography, 2020

Other safety measures Yeh revealed for the CSO Sessions include testing every Saturday for musicians and camera crew before they can rehearse and perform the following week. Masks are worn throughout by the string section, while the horn and woodwind players remove theirs only in performance.

If things continue on safely in the following months, Yeh said the CSO might even start performing chamber and larger works scored for up to 40 musicians.

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"We've done some things remotely, but we had to record each individual part in our homes and somebody miraculously edited them together," said Yeh about some lockdown videos over the summer. "But being on stage together is totally the way this music was supposed to be."

Chicago Symphony Orchestra clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, second from right, performs the Mozart Serenade No. 11 for Winds with his colleagues as part of episode 2 of the virtual CSO Sessions.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, second from right, performs the Mozart Serenade No. 11 for Winds with his colleagues as part of episode 2 of the virtual CSO Sessions. - Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography, 2020

Born in 1957 to Chinese parents in Washington, D.C., Yeh holds the distinction for being the first Asian musician appointed to the CSO. Yeh is also the longest serving clarinetist in CSO history -- the late music director Sir Georg Solti hired Yeh in 1977. One silver lining Yeh experienced with the lockdown was the luxury of time that it afforded. For instance, Yeh was able to reflect on a wealth of performance and recording history with CSO horn player David Alan Cooper over livestreamed interviews that have since been uploaded to YouTube.

"It's given me a chance to learn music that I can really delve into," Yeh said.

Yeh has taken time to study the virtuosic writing of John Williams' Clarinet Concerto. Yeh has also enjoyed going over composer James M. Stephenson's "Yehtudes" that were written specifically for him.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Yeh also recently performed a Zoom concert premiere of a "Duo for Two Clarinets." It was written by his wife, clarinetist and composer Teresa Reilly.

But now Yeh is looking forward to making music alongside his fellow CSO musicians. Yeh is particularly looking forward to the upcoming performance of "The Soldier's Tale," which will be released on Nov. 19.

For Yeh, Stravinsky's 1918 chamber music/theater/dance piece has great professional and historical resonances.

The extended family of Chicago Symphony Orchestra clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, right, includes daughter Molly Yeh, left; her husband, Nick; their daughter, Bernie; daughter Jenna; her husband, John Cwiok; wife clarinetist Teresa Reilly; and their daughter, Mia Reilly-Yeh.
The extended family of Chicago Symphony Orchestra clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, right, includes daughter Molly Yeh, left; her husband, Nick; their daughter, Bernie; daughter Jenna; her husband, John Cwiok; wife clarinetist Teresa Reilly; and their daughter, Mia Reilly-Yeh. - Courtesy of John Bruce Yeh, 2019

Yeh shared the 1986 Grammy Award for "Best New Classical Artist" as part of the chamber ensemble Chicago Pro Musica he co-founded for their recording of "The Soldier's Tale." Yeh also finds it ironic that "The Soldier's Tale" was originally written to tour across Europe following World War I, but it was forced to stop due to the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic.

"Now, of course, history will remember 2020 as that time when a pandemic shut down the world and especially the performing arts," Yeh said.

This makes Yeh feel wistful, but also sort of lucky that his last pre-lockdown performance before a live audience was documented on video.

On March 9, Yeh performed as part of an intimate concert at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks. It was all part of the second Season 6 episode of "Girl Meets Farm," since Yeh was putting in a guest appearance as the father of Food Network star Molly Yeh.

John Yeh is proud of his famous food blogger-turned-celebrity chef, and how members of her extended family get to be real-life periphery characters on her cooking show.

"Molly used to be known as John Yeh's daughter, but now, of course, I'm known as Molly Yeh's dad," Yeh said. "She's really become a superstar."

• • •

CSO Sessions

What: Seven episodes available with different start and end dates

Where: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, (312) 294-3000 or cso.org/tv

Tickets: $15 and up; 20% discount on three concerts or more

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