Meet the Music Makers: Chicago Symphony Winds

In conversation with John Bruce Yeh, clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Winds:

UChicago Presents: The Chicago Symphony Winds was founded in 1978 by Ray Still, the principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of the time. I understand that the group’s relationship to the University of Chicago dates back almost as far.

John Bruce Yeh: Definitely! Our very first concert together was at the Ravinia festival, but shortly thereafter, the University of Chicago asked us to do a whole series of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart written for various combinations of wind instruments. So we gave six concerts on that series, performing in Mandel Hall and also in Hutchinson Commons while Mandel was being renovated. And then the following year, we did a similar series with the music of Richard Strauss.

A lot of those were first-time opportunities for us as members of the Chicago Symphony to play in a new setting. Because we play in the orchestra on a day-to-day basis, we don't often have a chance to perform the smaller ensemble pieces, so this was a great opportunity for us to play chamber music together. And it certainly enhances our ability to make music together in the orchestra. It's always a really, really good idea to play chamber music with one's colleagues, because you bring all that experience – that sensitivity, that musical interaction – into the orchestra, so it was a wonderful thing.

Now, almost 40 years later, and we've resurrected the Chicago Symphony Winds with lot of new members, including a few guests joining us for this concert, which we’re very excited about. We're expanding from the wind octet to a larger ensemble which includes three bassoons, four horns, a cello, a double bass, and two flutes.

UCP: Brahms famously said that “it would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant, charming creative talent” than in the Dvořák Wind Serenade. I'm sure that you also have strong feelings about this work, both as a listener and a performer – what are some of your favorite things about this piece?

JBY: First of all, this work is unique is in its instrumentation, in having a cello on a double bass join the wind ensemble. And actually, there's three horns, rather than two horns, as in the original octet that we formed. Beyond that, it's just a sunny, beautiful, fun, Bohemian, delightful piece to listen to and to play. We've played it numerous times with the Chicago Symphony Winds, both in Chicago and on tour. It has tunes that you'll go out whistling, and it has tunes that you'll wake up in the middle of the night and just kind of smile thinking about. And we have a wonderful time playing it – there's a lot of interplay between different sections of the ensemble. There are dances and are laments and various different styles in the piece – it really runs the gamut, and is a very colorful work. We’re all going to have fun with, and we think the audience will too.

(Photo by Todd Rosenberg)