The CSO’s John Bruce Yeh turns to local composers for his latest recital disc

Few Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians have made as many recordings as John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal and E-flat clarinet. 

In addition to appearing on dozens of recordings with the CSO and Chicago Pro Musica, a Grammy Award-winning chamber ensemble he co-founded in 1979, Yeh can be heard on seven albums on the Chicago-based Cedille Records label. His latest project, “Chicago Clarinet Classics,” is set for release on March 10. It features six 20th- and 21st-century works for the instrument, all by composers who have spent significant portions of their lives in the Windy City. He pairs on some of selections with keyboardist Patrick Godon or clarinetist Teresa Reilly, who is married to Yeh. “This new release is very exciting, and I’m very pleased about how it is all turning out,” he said.

Yeh joined the CSO in June 1977 as its bass clarinetist when he was just 19 years old, becoming the first Asian musician appointed to the ensemble. He was a student at the Juilliard School at the time and dropped out after just two years. “I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “[Then-music director Georg] Solti liked me. It was like on-the-job training from there on out.”

He went on to take lessons and classes at Northwestern University in Evanston, and with those transfer credits, Juilliard granted him a degree in 1980. A year before, he was named the CSO’s assistant principal and E-flat clarinet, and Yeh served as acting principal clarinet in 2008-2011. He is now the longest-serving clarinetist in the orchestra’s history.

During his early years with the CSO, when the classical-recording scene was flourishing and the CSO was regularly featured on new releases, Yeh became acquainted with some of the record producers and his interest was piqued. Around the same time, he attended a consumer-electronics show in Chicago and met the leaders of Reference Recordings, founded in 1976. “It turned out to be a boon, because they make such amazing-sounding recordings,” he said. The label produced Chicago Pro Musica’s 1985 recording of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale that won a Grammy for the group. “It was the heyday of recording,” Yeh said. “And that’s when I got into it.”

In 1989, James Ginsburg founded the now-non-profit Cedille Records, which focuses on the Chicago classical scene. He knew pianist Easley Blackwood, the co-founder of Chicago Pro Musica, who in turn introduced the budding record producer to Yeh. (Blackwood, who recently died, is one of the two dedicatees of “Chicago Clarinet Classics.”) Yeh and Ginsburg met at the University of Chicago’s Hutchinson Commons, and Ginsburg spoke about his plans for what became Cedille. “I said, ‘That’s great. I’ve got a lot of ideas.’ So I was there from the beginning with Jim. Of course, he’s grown this into something very special not only for Chicago, but it’s unique throughout the world to have this kind of recording company that promotes music and musicians from a particular location. I’m just so proud to be part of it.”

“It is a tough nut to crack. It’s a little bit off-kilter in terms of harmony and texture. It’s almost like there is a lot of organ improvisation-type writing in the piece.” — John Bruce Yeh on Leo Sowerby’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

The spark for what is Yeh’s fourth solo recording on Cedille Records was Leo Sowerby, who reigned for several decades as one of the most prominent figures on the Chicago classical scene and who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1946. Frederick Stock, the CSO’s second and longest-tenured music director (from 1905 through 1942), championed the composer’s music. Yeh said Sowerby became something of a de facto composer-in-residence.

Outside the narrow worlds of organ and Episcopal church music, Sowerby’s name doesn’t generate much recognition these days in part because his Romantic style fell out of favor, as more atonal and avant-garde music took hold in the 20th century. “Jim [Ginsburg] has been doing several different recordings of [Sowerby’s music], and he is on a mission to uncover works by Sowerby and to present them in a good way,” Yeh said. He wrote to the clarinetist during the pandemic about a little-known 1931 wind quintet that Sowerby composed. A performance of that piece was featured on Episode 19 of CSO Sessions, a series of small-ensemble concerts streamed on the CSOtv video portal, introduced during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The discovery of that piece led Yeh to research other music by Sowerby, who worked in a variety of forms before focusing later in his career on organ and church music when he was organist-choirmaster at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. Yeh uncovered Sowerby’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, a nearly half-hour piece written in 1938. This is the world-premiere recording of the work, which Yeh hopes will bring more attention to it and additional performances by other performers. “It is a tough nut to crack,” Yeh said. “It’s a little bit off-kilter in terms of harmony and texture. It’s almost like there is a lot of organ improvisation-type writing in the piece, so I think clarinetists have shied away from it.”

The clarinetist then began thinking he could put together an entire program based around that anchor work, and his wife suggested Robert Muczynski’s Time Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 43 (1983).  The composer, a Chicago native, studied at DePaul University and later taught at several Chicago institutions, including Roosevelt University, before moving to Tucson to join the faculty at the University of Arizona. “I said, ‘That seems to be the basis for an all-Chicago clarinet album,’ because both of these pieces are very strong, so I started looking around for more,” Yeh said.

He next selected the Sonata in One Movement, a five-minute work from 1939 by Russian-born composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977), who taught at DePaul and was Muczynski’s teacher. The clarinet works by the two composers share certain similarities in style, and Yeh chose them to open and close the album. In the spirit of diversity, Ginsburg suggested Phoenix Rising by Stacy Garrop, a fast-rising Chicago composer, and Yeh readily agreed. The 2017 work for unaccompanied clarinet was adapted from the original version for soprano saxophone.

Rounding out the album is Spirit for Solo Clarinet (2017), by Shulamit Ran, and Reilly’s The Forgiveness Train for two clarinets (2020). Ran, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and another winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, wrote her piece in memory of Laura Flax, a New York-based clarinetist who died in 2017. Reilly composed Forgiveness Train during the pandemic when her public performing had ceased, and it is her first work to be recorded.

“So the whole album coalesced around these three historical pieces from the 20th century and then three living 21st-century Chicago women composers,” Yeh said. “It’s a wonderful balance and an amazing variety of musical styles. And it has all come out of our city, which goes to show once again how vibrant and how exciting the musical life in Chicago is.”

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