Written by Lauren Carrane
This week, we are continuing our series of interviews with the members of the Civitas Ensemble to find out how each of them got involved in music and what drives each of them to succeed on their own instrument.
Yuan-Qing was born in Shanghai and won the Chinese Nationwide Violin Competition at age 17. The following year, she captured second prize at the Menuhin International Violin Competition. She joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1995 and became the Assistant Concertmaster a year later.
Here’s what she had to say:
Where did you grow up and how old were you when you started playing music?
I grew up in Shanghai, China and started playing the violin when I was six years old.
What are some of your early memories of learning to play the violin?
I started learning to play the violin soon after the Cultural Revolution ended. During the 10-year Cultural Revolution, Western influence and art was banned from China; sheet music and Western books were destroyed. It was extremely difficult for my parents to obtain music and an instrument for me to use, so I started out on a violin that was too big. I learned to play with my left arm fully extended, and had a stack of books under my arm to support it. Since most of the sheet music my father had was destroyed, the few that survived had large X marks across the pages, and he hand copied anything he could borrow from his friends.
Were your parents musicians?
Neither of my parents are musicians, but they both love music. My father dreamed of pursuing a singing career, but he was born at the start of WWII, and he lived through the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution, etc.; a career in Western music remained a dream.
What kinds of music were you exposed to as a kid?
I remember sitting through numerous Chinese operas with my grandparents. I was only exposed to classical music a couple years after I started playing the violin when my parents saved enough money to buy me a mono boom box with a cassette player. It was then that I heard of Yasha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern
When did you know that music was something that you wanted to pursue professionally?
Like most musicians, music has been a part of my life from an early age. Even if I had decided not to pursue music, I know that it would have stayed with me. I had the opportunity to attend three very different middle schools, one that was strong in math and science, another that was strong in languages, and the Shanghai Music Conservatory. My family and I decided that music would be my path in life.
What is your favorite music to play? Do you have any favorite composers?
I simply love playing chamber music, for the collaboration among friends with whom I’m totally in sync musically. On my own, I love playing Bach. No matter how I feel on any particular day, Bach gives me equilibrium. His music is egoless. When I play his music, I’m lost in the completeness and the beauty of it. I become one with the music, both unaware of my own existence and fully aware of the serenity of my surrounding.
What do you get out of playing with Civitas and the CSO respectively?
Nothing is more exhilarating than playing a Mahler Symphony or a tone poem by Richard Strauss with the CSO, and nothing is more intimate and transcendent than playing Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” with my Civitas friends.
What kinds of things do you do for fun outside of music?
Off stage, I love to spend time with my family, go to theater performances, attend various classes and lectures, read a good book, try out new restaurants with friends, cook, and travel to France.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
There have been many memorable moments, but if I must choose one, it would have to be the times I worked with Maestro Pierre Boulez on his fantastic solo violin piece, “Anthèmes II,” which included an electronic realization that splits sound. The piece was extremely challenging; I spent several months and dedicated hours each day to learning, perfecting, and memorizing this work. The first time I performed the piece was in 2002, for the CSO’s MusicNow series in Chicago. I had the privilege of working closely with Maestro Boulez for about a week, listening as he sang different passages to demonstrate how they were to be performed, and fine-tuning the balance between the amplified violin and the eight speakers manipulated by computers.
The experience of performing the piece was amazing; the audience was in awe of the sound both from my violin and the speakers. Maestro Barenboim and Maestro Boulez invited me to perform this work again in Berlin in the spring of 2005 as part of the grand celebration of Boulez’s 80th birthday. I treasure the moments spent working alongside with the Maestro, and the memories of his graciousness and warmth toward me.