John Bruce Yeh was just 19 in 1977 when he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although that appointment was a major milestone for him, the ensemble and the larger classical-music world, the trailblazing young clarinetist didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time.
Being the first Asian musician appointed to the CSO “wasn’t a big deal for me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m in the Chicago Symphony, and I’m with these amazing, legendary players, and I’m their colleague.’ It didn’t really occur to me that I’m Asian.”
But as Yeh looks back, he appreciates the significance of that breakthrough moment. “Now, I carry that badge with great pride,” said Yeh, who turns 66 on May 23. Now the CSO’s assistant principal clarinet and an avid chamber-music performer, he is part of the Wabash Avenue Music Collective, which appears May 21 at the Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. Joining him for the free CSO Chamber Music concert are CSO members Rong-Yan Tang and Kozue Funakoshi, violins; Max Raimi, viola; Karen Basrak, cello, and mezzo-soprano and guest artist Sara Dailey.
Since his arrival 46 years ago, the number of Asians and Asian-Americans in the CSO has substantially increased, now accounting for more than 20 percent of the roster. They fill some of its most prominent positions, including concertmaster (Robert Chen), associate concertmaster (Stephanie Jeong) and assistant principal viola (Li-Kuo Chang). “It’s pretty amazing,” Yeh said.
Yeh recalls that the second Asian musician to join the orchestra was violinist Joyce Noh. “We always joked: We’ve got a Yeh, and we’ve got a Noh,” Yeh said with a big laugh. “We just chuckled about it because it was so funny.”
Like many arts and cultural organizations, the CSO is marking Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. For Yeh, the celebration holds great meaning for him because of everything he has been able to accomplish in his career and the sacrifices of his parents, Gordon Chien-Kuan Yeh and Mary Mei-Li Chang Yeh, who emigrated from China after World War II.
“My parents were both immigrants,” he said. “They made a good life in a foreign country, coming here before the Cultural Revolution to do their studies. They were lucky, but they were also courageous. They couldn’t go back to their homeland for decades.”
Yeh’s parents and eldest daughter accompanied him on a voyage to China in 1999, organized by Chang. As part of the visit, a group of CSO musicians joined the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for a few rehearsals and a performance. “On that trip, I met nine of my relatives that I had never seen before,” Yeh said.
“My parents were both immigrants, coming here before the Cultural Revolution to do their studies. They were lucky, but they were also courageous. They couldn’t go back to their homeland for decades.” — John Bruce Yeh
Yeh grew up in Los Angeles, the son of scientists who had pursued music through college. His father sang in the Harvard Glee Club and performed several times with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His mother was a serious piano student. “When they came to America, they got into listening to the radio,” he said. “My dad had a big record collection, so music would be in the house all the time, playing on the radio or records or whatever. It was in my blood from the very beginning.”
When he was 5, he took piano lessons for a year, in part because there an instrument in the house. “I don’t remember much about the experience, but it did not go well because I don’t think I had a very good teacher,” Yeh said. A year later in grade school, however, he had the opportunity to join the orchestra, and from all the available instruments, he chose the clarinet. His parents embraced the choice and immediately decided he should have private lessons to bolster his studies, choosing Gordon Herritt as his instructor. “They got me a teacher when I was 6, and it turned out to be a really good teacher, because he was very patient with me and he was clued into what it took to be a professional,” Yeh said.
When he was 10, there was a picture of him in a local newspaper as he auditioned for the Mount St. Mary’s Youth Orchestra. “It was so funny, because I was this little roly-poly fat Chinese kid with a crew-cut playing the clarinet,” he said. “I might even have a copy of that somewhere.”
Yeh was selected for the ensemble, which was led by Manuel Compinsky, an esteemed violinist and conductor who had studied with the renowned virtuoso Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe. Compinsky had brief career as a composer and conductor at Universal Studios in the 1950s, but lost his job when he refused to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Compinsky asked Yeh to perform a concerto with the youth orchestra, and the budding artist took the spotlight in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. “That was the first experience that I really remember, performing a concerto with an orchestra, and I was just 10,” he said.
At that point, Herritt advised Yeh and his family to seek a new teacher, and he landed with Gary Gray, who served for 20 years as principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and was a longtime faculty member at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Gary Gray was my mentor throughout high school and college,” Yeh said. “He really, really pointed me in the right direction.”
Yeh followed an accelerated path in high school, graduating when he was just 15. He then attended UCLA in 1973-75, pursuing a pre-medical program so he could follow in the footsteps of his parents. But his side pursuits in music began to overwhelm his central course of college studies, as he won several major awards and played in UCLA’s top ensembles, as well as the American Youth Symphony.
In the summers of 1973 and 1974, he attended the prestigious Aspen Music Festival and School, stints that turned out to be critical to his future. “My path took me to Aspen, and that’s when I really became very passionate about music, and I realized that being a doctor wasn’t in my future,” he said. He transferred to New York’s Juilliard School when he was 17.
During the summer before Juilliard, he studied with Michele Zukovsky, who served as principal clarinetist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1961 through 2015. That experience gave Yeh the chance to meet his lone Asian musical role model during his formative years: violinist Tze-Koong “T.K.” Wang, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1963 through 2004. “It was a fairly uncommon thing in those days to see any Asian musicians in an American orchestra,” Yeh said. He recalls watching Wang play trios with Zukovsky. “He was really cool,” Yeh said.
Soon after arriving at Juilliard, Yeh began auditioning for professional positions. Among the first was an opening for bass clarinet (he had been performing the instrument at Juilliard) at the LA Phil. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I know these people. They know me. And it would be perfect to go back to my hometown and play in the orchestra,’ ” he said. Although he played well, he was told he was not ready for the job. In 1977, he took three auditions, starting with the Cincinnati Symphony and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Though he didn’t get those positions, he felt he was getting closer to success each time. Then he won his audition with the CSO in May 1977 as bass clarinet under Music Director Georg Solti, and he joined the orchestra in July, performing for the first time with the ensemble at the Ravinia Festival.
Being the youngest CSO member was intimidating, but Yeh soon got over his fears. “Everybody was so welcoming,” he said. “These 30- and 40-year veterans in the orchestra are calling me their colleague.” He remembers using the honorific “Mr.” when he spoke to then-principals Adolph “Bud” Herseth (trumpet) and Milton Preves (viola). “It was like, ‘No, no, you gotta call me Bud. You gotta call me Milt. We’re colleagues now.’ It took me awhile to get used to that,” Yeh said.
Two years later, he was named assistant principal and E-flat clarinet. And now, like Herseth and Preves then, Yeh has assumed the mantle as one of the CSO’s longest serving and most respected members.