The Civitas Ensemble returns with Mahler, Mozart and Strauss

The Civitas Ensemble, featuring Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians Yuan-Qing Yu and Kenneth Olsen, performs across Chicago and its suburbs. For its next performance on March 7, Civitas returns to Orchestra Hall, its home away from home, so to speak, for a piano quartet program.

As part of the CSO Chamber Music series, Civitas will present Mahler’s unfinished Piano Quartet in A Minor. It offers a glance into the composer’s mindset, hinting at many of his large-scale works to come. It is followed by one of Mozart’s most popular chamber works, the Piano Quartet in G Minor and Strauss’ impetuous yet rich Piano Quartet in C Minor.  For this free performance, the ensemble will be joined by another CSO member, violist Weijing Wang Michal.

Founded in 2011, Civitas embraces a threefold mission: to present engaging live performances of new and traditional works, to inspire a younger generation of classical musicians and to bring the healing power of music to those with limited access to live performances. Civitas consists of Yuan-Qing Yu, CSO assistant concertmaster and a founding Civitas member; Kenneth Olsen, CSO assistant principal cello, and Winston Choi, head of the piano department at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. Joining the trio for the March 7 concert will be another CSO member, violist Weijing Wang Michal.

Along with the standard trio repertoire, the Civitas Ensemble often performs world-premiere works by contemporary composers. That’s the case on its latest disc, “Jin Yin,” released by Chicago-based label Cedille Records and featuring works by Yao Chen, Vivian Fung and Lu Pei, along with new arrangements of pieces from Zhou Long and Chen Yi. 

The album’s title, which means “Golden Tone” in English, refers to the clarity of musical expression heard in each work. In addition, the element of gold has an important role in Chinese tradition, and the element is referenced on some of the album’s tracks. Also featured on “Jin Yin” are retired CSO clarinet J. Lawrie Bloom, a founding Civitas member, and guest artists Emma Gerstein, CSO second flute; Cynthia Yeh, CSO principal percussion, and pipa virtuoso Yihan Chen.

Leading off the disc, Zhou Long’s Five Elements evokes realms of metal, wood, water, fire and earth, while Chen Yi’s ethereal Night Thoughts was inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem. Both tracks feature the composers’ own arrangements made specifically for the Civitas Ensemble. “Jin Yin” also consists of Yao Chen’s rhapsodic Emanations of Tara, named for a revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism and written expressly for the Civitas Ensemble; Vivian Fung’s Birdsong, a virtuosic piece for violin and piano that opens and closes with evocations of bird calls, and Lu Pei’s vigorous yet lyrical Scenes Through Window, imbued with American minimalist rhythms and Chinese folk influences.

“All five compositions have in common the bridging of two cultural musical traditions — that of the legacy of Chinese classical and that of Western new music as developed and practiced over the years, and of course coming into present-day developments,” observes the Classical Modern Music Review. “Each work invents that bridge for itself. No two creative solutions are alike and what stands out is how each has real originality, a pronounced lack of formulaic solutions, and how well the Civitas Ensemble takes on the implications of each work and does a supremely imaginative and fully musical job bringing the music to life.”