After Yuan-Qing Yu had been a member of the Houston Symphony for just three months, a second violin position came open in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and she jumped at the chance to audition. The reason was simple: “While the Houston Symphony is among the finest orchestras in the United States, the Chicago Symphony is one of the best orchestras in the world.”
Yu, a native of China, was hired in 1995, when Daniel Barenboim was music director, joining the orchestra during its annual summer residency at the Ravinia Festival. A year later, she became assistant concertmaster, the position she has held since. And she will be in the spotlight Dec. 2 for the second concert of this season’s MusicNOW, the CSO’s contemporary-music series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
She will be featured in David T. Little’s obscure clues and shiny objects, a work for solo violin commissioned by the New York-based MATA Festival, which is devoted to championing works by young composers. Julián Martínez Vázquez debuted the five-minute composition in 2018 at The Kitchen in New York. Little, who is known for such operas as Dog Days (2012) and JFK (2016), has served on the composition faculty at Mannes-The New School in New York City since 2015.
Yu feels drawn to contemporary music and often performs on the MusicNOW series. “Even the pieces I don’t initially feel a connection to,” she said, “I try to find a connection, because the only way to make a composition convincing is to be sure that I am convinced first. So that’s always a good challenge for me.” Finding such connection to obscure clues, though, has not been a problem because she is a big fan of the piece.
Although Yu has considerable experience as a soloist, stepping into the spotlight still comes with its challenges. “It’s always hard,” she said. “There’s always that inner voice asking you: ‘Am I doing a good job?’ I think as musicians we all have that self-critical voice. That’s what makes us improve. And in this case, I assume the composer will be there, so that’s an added level of, I wouldn’t say stress, but you really want to do the piece and the composer the service of representing them in the best light possible.”
Western classical music all but died out in China during the Cultural Revolution, a brutal political crackdown that began in 1966 and continued until the death of Mao Zedong 10 years later. Interest rekindled afterward with the reopening of the Central Conservatory of Beijing in 1978 and other schools, and in succeeding decades, the musical genre has skyrocketed in popularity with the building of scores of concert halls across the country and millions of youngsters taking violin and piano lessons. “I feel like that greatly shaped my past,” Yu said, “because right around the time the Cultural Revolution ended, there was a resurgence, a welcoming back of Western music and there was definitely a thirst for that.”
In part because of the Cultural Revolution and the devastating Great Leap Forward before it, Yu’s father was never able to fulfill his dreams of being a professional musician, so he pinned his hopes onto his daughter. Around 1977, he purchased a violin from a secondhand shop and began giving her lessons when she was 6 years old. Because he bought an instrument that was too large for the little girl, he had to put a stack of books on a little table so she could rest her arm while trying to support the instrument. Just three years later, she already showed an affinity for the instrument.
During middle school in 1982, she managed to become one of just five violin students accepted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, one of the two best such schools in China. When she was 17, she won the Chinese Nationwide Violin Competition, a precursor to her participating in a series of international musical contests. “I think that was really a big deal, because that was 1988,” she said. “So even though classical music started [again] in the late ’70s, during the ’80s it was still slowly recovering from the deprivation of that [during the Cultural Revolution].”
A year later, she took second place in the senior division at the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for musicians younger than 22. Fellow prize winners in the junior division were Jennifer Koh and Livia Sohn, who have gone on to notable solo careers. “At the time, it didn’t seem like such a daunting thing,” she said. “I participated in the national competition and then I went to the Menuhin Competition. It was just a process that we went through. You focus. You play your best, and then the rest is of out of my control.” She went on to win awards at two other contests, including third prize at the 1993 Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in France.
In 1990, when she was 19, she moved to the United States to study at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on a full scholarship, graduating four years later with an artist’s certificate in violin and master’s degree in music. Because of her honors in significant music competitions and her experience in China and in the United States, playing recitals and appearing with orchestras, Yu briefly considered pursuing solo career. But in part because of encouragement from one of her teachers, who was concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, and a desire for a more stable home life, she began to think about being an orchestra member.
Three months before she graduated, Yu auditioned for the Houston Symphony and won a position. She joined the orchestra in September and almost immediately tried out for the Chicago Symphony, largely ignoring the intense pressure that comes with such processes.
“It’s just like any other competition,” she said. “You have one position or one prize you are hoping that you would be the one to get, and at that moment, it’s just you and the number you are assigned to for the audition. We all get a number. I think my number was 51 out of 300 something. You walk on the stage, and you play what they tell you to play. You try to be focused and play as best as you can.”
She was hired in March of 1995 as the third-chair second violinist, sitting next a longtime player who has since retired. At his request, she agreed to a two-week tryout in that position to make sure the two would be compatible musical companions. “I think that was more scary than the audition itself,” she said, “because at age 24 I was walking into this great orchestra, sitting with people I didn’t know and Barenboim was putting a lot of focus on me.” Once she passed that test, she felt more relaxed when she joined the orchestra for good that summer, and she got along well with her stand partner.
But she stayed in the second violins for only a year before she auditioned for her current post of assistant concertmaster, a position she shares with David Taylor. She typically sits third or fourth chair and sometimes moves up to the front of the first violins if the concertmaster or associate concertmaster is absent. “Basically, I’m floating around the first two stands,” she said.
Yu played under Barenboim for about 11 years, and she came to admire him as both a conductor and pianist. “I loved working with him,” she said. “Just the way he embraced music, the way he processed music, the way he conducted and played. Each concert was different and he had such a relationship with music and understanding [of it] that I feel I really grew under his wings.”
She has high praise as well for Riccardo Muti, who took over as music director in 2010, but she describes him as an “entirely different” personality with his own way of making music. “Every week there is this horizon that opens up and new repertoire,” she said, citing the example of the concert versions of Italian operas that the orchestra has regularly performed under Muti.
Although her orchestral position keeps her busy, it is by no means her only musical pursuit. In 2011, she joined forces with three other Chicago musicians, including two other CSO members, to form the Civitas Ensemble. In addition to serving as ensemble-in-residence at Valparaiso (Ind.) University and appearing on concert series, it has made appearances in hospitals a special part of its mission. This latter pursuit derived in part from Yu having to spend days at the hospital when her young son battled and eventually overcame leukemia. She also hopes to start a new free concert series for memory-loss patients and their families. If all that was not enough, she is also a member of the music faculties at both Northwestern University in Evanston and Roosevelt University.
She professes a love for teaching. “I guess if I tell people, it seems like a lot,” she said of her multiple activities. “But to me, it doesn’t. Each one takes a part of my life and brings in oxygen in some way. Like yesterday, after seven hours of teaching, I didn’t feel drained. I felt energized.”