Conversation with Mischa Zupko (Part 3)

Although normal life hasn't fully resumed, the piece that began in quarantine is finished! Read Mischa's reflections on his process (with snippets of the original hand-written score), plus hear how he decided on the title Anechoic Rhapsody in the Zoom chat with Yuan-Qing Yu below:

"So I’ve come to the end of the journey here. The process for every piece is different, but what I do notice about my process that is consistent is that when I reach somewhere past the half way point, the full shape of the piece is revealed and the music just pours out. It is almost like finishing a puzzle where it is so obvious where the remaining piece fit. When I got to the half way point of this piece, a question that had been weighing heavily on me was, “where does the piano come into it’s own and why”. For a vast majority of the piece, the piano plays the role of instigator; it provides the impetus for action, but in and of itself is more or less supportive of that action whereas the violin, cello and clarinet carry the primary melodic material and gestures of the piece. The piano is the “pump” for the heartbeat, but note the heartbeat itself. And yet to assume that this is a subsidiary role is completely wrong. It is the divining power behind all that happens; the harmonic foundation, the disruptive rhythmic force and the establishment of tone at all times from which everything else emanates. And as I was approaching a climax of sorts where the piano was increasingly assertive in these arenas, I realized it was trying to break free to reveal itself as this undeniable force:

(Photos provided by the composer)

It was at this point that I realized the piano needed to deliver a forceful soliloquy; the curtain drawn back revealing the wizard. This piece is jam-packed with content in a way that many of my works are not (which is an exciting departure for me). But this content is all anchored by the fact that it works in coordination with a harmonic force that has been ever present in the piano. This consists of rising intervals (two note chords), each one increment smaller or larger than the last, that combine through the use of pedal and sometimes through simultaneous playing to create harmonic superstructures or rather, “really big chords”:

(Photo provided by the composer)

At the point of highest energy in the piece, the clarinet, violin and cello all drop out and the piano begins with ferocious iterations of the rising intervals carrying the energy of the previous music into this proclamation of identity:

(Photo provided by the composer)

After this initial “rant”, the profusion of content that saturates the work is gradually revealed in cameo-like appearances amidst the piano’s ferocious energy in a moment of clarity where genesis and the creation collide:

(Photo provided by the composer)

The rest of the ensemble returns as abruptly as it departed under the cover of a mass of piano sound. Although this moment is completely different in tone from the beginning of the work, it is in essence exactly the same in terms of pitch, rhythm and gesture (heartbeat). What is different here is the distribution of content; now it is the violin, not the cello that carries the main melodic material, sounding almost like a distant descant (a Beethoven inspiration). Over the course of the final 2 minutes of the work, this descant floats from the uppermost reaches of the violin’s range to down to a point where it is picked up by the clarinet and descends to the clarinet’s lowest note. In essence, the entire work has been a pull between ascending gestures (rising intervals) and descending gestures (pulsing chords) and this final decent brings us to the original sense of calm reflection that was the primary inspiration behind its creation.

(Photos provided by the composer)

All that remains is to come up with a title……HELP!!!"

Conversation with Mischa Zupko (Part 2)

Progress on Mischa Zupko's commission for Civitas Ensemble continues as composers and performers alike adjust to the "new normal" of classical music in the time of COVID-19. Mischa once again offered us insight into his compositional process, breaking down how the newfound quiet and turbulence of daily life influence his work:

"After living with this piece now for a couple of months, I’ve come to realize the potential of the initial stroke. What began as the sound of a heartbeat amidst the quiet of pandemic quarantining has evolved into the notion of freely passing time; time that knows no constant, but is continually subject to the machinations of the heart and how we perceive it. In our new normal, time flows some days as slowly as the sparse traffic on our empty streets while other days go by without notice of sunrise or set. Other days the rapid succession of events bring us to days end in a single beat and yet the mornings seems so far away. As this work has progressed, the “heartbeat” that began as a regular pulsing idea in the clarinet and violin continues to beat at the core, but is subject to the strange mutations of time as we now know it:

A pulse that gradually accelerates and then slows down.
Two individual pulses that accelerate, each at their own pace.
A song that emerges, free of the constraints of the pulsing in its vicinity. (Photos provided by the composer)

The separate strands of this pulsing framework diverge and converge again, giving the sense of becoming untethered and tethered again. But the heartbeat is always there and it holds us to the reality that we are alive and well and simply need to accept the turbulence. Although we generally desire the stability and calm of knowing what we are facing in any given situation, there is a freedom and beauty in not knowing."

Memory Café: A Virtual Outreach Initiative

On June 25, 2020, Civitas tried something new: a virtual concert for patients with mild-to-moderate dementia designed to study the benefits of live music on memory loss patients and their caretakers. The concert was the result of a collaboration with Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour and his team the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease at Northwestern University. Performances by Civitas members and Chicago Symphony colleagues, Gipsy Way Ensemble, and the Northwestern Medical Orchestra were selected according to clinical music therapy guidelines and streamed directly into the homes of patients and their care givers, followed by a live Q&A with Dr. Bonakdarpour and Civitas violinist Yuan-Qing Yu.

The new initiative was originally set to launch in-person at Symphony Center's Buntrock Hall in downtown Chicago in March. When the COVID-19 crisis made public gatherings and live performances impossible to schedule, the program moved online to best serve its newly homebound audience. Many of the Mesulam Center's patients hold subscriptions to theaters, museums, and concert halls in the Chicago area and reported feeling culturally lost when venues began closing at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak.

"Some patients are getting worse faster because of a lack of stimulation," according to Dr. Bonakdarpour. "Isolation is a big risk factor. If they're not stimulated, they decline."

The concert was presented over Zoom to Mesulam Center patients and blended pre-recorded video performances and live speakers. The repertoire choice was guided by music therapy specifications meant to best engage the audience, including parameters like a steady pulse, clear melodies, and a moderate tempo range. Including the Q&A, the entire program lasted about 50 minutes.

Reactions to the concert were overwhelmingly positive. Text messages and emails from caretakers showed photos of patients smiling and clapping along with the music, and survey results showed a general boost in mood and energy level.

“We’ve been doing this for 3 years for patients in nursing homes, and the reaction’s always positive," says Dr. Bonakdarpour. “They wake up to it, they dance, they respond to it very well.”

The results were encouraging to the performers involved, many of whom are still adjusting to the new world of virtual concerts. “It does feel like it makes a difference. It’s important to hear that," Yuan-Qing Yu says. "With virtual concerts, you don’t see the immediate reaction."

"It's a very valuable collaboration," concludes Dr. Bonakdarpour. Although no one is sure when in-person concerts can safely resume, plans for additional and more wide-reaching virtual Memory Café concerts are underway. If you would like to support future outreach concerts, please consider making a donation today. Your generosity will ensure we continue to offer free concerts to people in need!

Conversation with Mischa Zupko (Part 1)

This year, Civitas Ensemble has the pleasure of collaborating with composer Mischa Zupko on a new work for the core members (violin, cello, clarinet, and piano) dedicated to Judy McCue, former Board Chair and a dear friend to the Civitas members. After meeting with Judy and Civitas violinist Yuan-Qing Yu over a Zoom call, Mischa was kind enough to write about his writing process during the time of coronavirus and how Illinois' shelter-in-place order has effected his compositional process:

"So, the day we had our lovely meeting on Zoom, I immediately had some inspiration thinking about Judy’s ideas of “healing” and our discussions about the voice.  I quickly went to the drawing board to sketch out what I was hearing and was quite pleased with the result.  The next couple of weeks were consumed with busy work meeting my Grant Park deadline, but as soon as I finished, I eagerly returned to what I had started.  Only now, it seemed too bare, and not getting at anything I felt I could nurture.  As I mentioned in our meeting, this often happens in the process; initial sparks lost in the ether.  So I sat and ruminated for quite sometime…nothing.  And that was just it….this sense of absence.  I don’t remember a time when it’s been this quiet and you can literally hear your heart beat some days.  I thought about how we are all experiencing that quiet.  For some at certain times, it must be a welcome rest and for others it can exacerbate a sense of loneliness.  I know I’ve felt both.  What is so beautiful about this quiet, despite its unsettling side, is the fact that one can be so aware and grateful for the simple gift of breath and life; the heartbeat at its core.  In this quiet, I heard that heartbeat in my own chest and in the pulsing of chords played by the violin and clarinet.  This heartbeat reacts to gentle figures played by the piano, which change the rate of the pulsing.  I think of the piano as “disturbances” in a still pond affecting ripples in the surrounding water.  The heartbeat is alive…it is aware of all of its surroundings and affected by the minute changes in the air. A cello melody emerges; a voice from within responding to the beauty of this heightened awareness.  

The initial sketches of Mischa's new piece.

These thoughts are stream of consciousness, but they are truly where my mind wanders when it creates.  When I step back, I realize all of the ideas that originally inspired me from our conversation are there.  The awareness and gratitude that come from the silence promote our healing in the face of the “unsettling” aspects of our present circumstances.  The “voice” of the cello responds to this healing; a form of rejoicing, even in its initial solemnity."

After reading Mischa's eloquent words, Yuan-Qing and Civitas' Administrative Manager Dan Hickey caught up with the composer again on Zoom to explore his unique ideas and perspective further:

Jin Yin Video Interview | A Spectrum of Contemporary Chinese Composers

Discover our newest release through a short interview exploring the origin of Jin Yin

Jin Yin offers a spectrum of new instrumental works by living Chinese composers, each with a unique perspective on Western and Far Eastern musical sensibilities. Spearheaded by Yuan-Qing Yu, one of our founding member and assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jin Yin (“Golden Tone”) comprises world-premiere recordings of works by Yao Chen, Vivian Fung, and Lu Pei, plus specially made new arrangements of pieces from Zhou Long and Chen Yi.

First recordings include Yao Chen’s mystical, 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 alternatively vigorous and lyrical Scenes Through Window, imbued with both American minimalist rhythms and South China folk traditions. Leading off the program, Zhou Long’s engaging Five Elements evokes metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, while Chen Yi’s serene, ethereal Night Thoughts was inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem. Both receive their first recordings in the composers’ own arrangements made specifically for the Civitas Ensemble.

We named our album for the Chinese phrase meaning “Golden Tone” because they treasure these works for their clarity of musical expression.

Featured in Cedille podcast 34 - Interview with Jim Ginsburg about Jin Yin

On this episode of Cedille podcast, Jim GInsburg sat down with Civitas Ensemble’s Yuan-Qing Yu to discuss our latest album Jin Yin. Meaning “Golden Tone,” this new release features a vibrant spectrum of works by contemporary Chinese composers that fuse Eastern and Western classical music traditions.

Season Opener: Russian Influences on French Composers

As an ensemble, Civitas has always been passionate about using music to bring cultures together. Last season, we invited Romani (gypsy) musicians from the Czech Republic to collaborate on a project that spanned two continents and celebrated cross-cultural influences on classical and commissioned pieces we performed together in Prague and Chicago. This season, we are excited to bring  our audiences a series of events created with musicians and composers from Beijing, China.

This same spirit of cross-cultural migration and collaboration inspired us to select the music of several French composers who were influenced by Russian composers for our upcoming Season Opener on Friday, October 6 at Gottlieb Hall, Merit School of Music.

We’ll be performing works by three French composers who lived in Paris during the early 20th Century: Camille Saint-Säens (1835−1921), Maurice Ravel (1875−1937) and Francis Poulenc (1899−1963).

At the time, Paris was a cultural magnet for musicians, writers and artists, of all types. Russians who flocked to the dynamic international scene in Paris, included painter Marc Chagall, composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, and Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes.

“Paris and Vienna at the turn of the century were the great mixing bowls of culture and art,” says J. Lawrie Bloom, Civitas’ clarinetist. “Clearly, composers were very influenced by what was going on there, whether it was Russians or jazz.”

Winston Choi, Civitas’ pianist, says it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just the foreigners who were influenced by the French, but that the French were influenced by the outsiders as well. “I guess what’s so obvious is the influence Paris had on Russian composers because it was such a hub, but it went the other way, too. It wasn’t just a one-way street,” he says.

The World’s Exposition in Paris in 1889, when visitors had the chance to hear Rimsky-Korsakov conducting his own works, was a significant and impactful introduction to Russian music for French composers. The experience left a lasting impression on the 14-year-old Ravel, who later wrote his own version of Sheherazade.

Another Russian composer who influenced many French composers was Stravinsky, who debuted his score for The Rite of Spring in Paris on May 29, 1913. The music sent shock waves throughout the musical world, changing how many composers thought about rhythm, harmonic structure, tonality, dissonance and the act of composing.

“It’s a ballet, but it’s totally non-symphonic. Its harmonic structure has almost no precedent,” Bloom says. “It’s guttural. It’s deeply sexual. People didn’t write music like that before.” Choi agrees that The Rite of Spring was groundbreaking music for its time. “It’s incredibly exciting, visceral music,” he says. “The way Stravinsky uses rhythm really shakes up the way we think about music.”

For some composers, such as Ravel and Poulenc, The Rite of Spring inspired them to experiment more and to push the boundaries of composition.

Ravel was in attendance at The Rite of Spring’s première and predicted it would become a historically important piece. Poulenc was too young to have been present at The Rite of Spring’s première, but his uncle introduced him to the music, and he said it was something that impacted him greatly and influenced him for the rest of his career.

For others, the audacity of The Rite of Spring sparked the opposite reaction, causing them to embrace more traditional music. Saint-Säens detested The Rite of Spring. “Saint-Säens was so conservative and neo-classical, I would expect him to hate it because it was completely against everything he stood for,” Bloom says.

However, Saint-Saens was influenced by a different Russian composer, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. The two first met in 1875 when Saint-Saens went on a concert tour to Moscow, and they became fast friends and admirers of each other’s music. In fact, it is thanks to Saint-Saens that Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture was first performed in Paris.

Choi says artists have always been influenced by the works of other artists on the international stage, but by the 20th century, it had become so easy to travel to other countries in Europe that this kind of cross-pollination became inevitable.

“We too often stereotype composers and lump them together nationally,” Choi says. “But really, it’s impossible for composers to escape the influence of people around them.”

Civitas looks forward to exploring these very themes all year, and to conversations this spring with our Chinese and Chinese-American collaborators, reflecting on the varied and complex personal, educational and professional cultural influences the four of us embody as artists and together as a chamber ensemble. We’ll hope you’ll join us on this journey starting October 6!

Valparaiso University: Six Years as Ensemble-in-Residence

When Civitas Ensemble first formed seven years ago, its members knew they wanted to do more than simply play chamber music for Chicago audiences. The group wanted to invest in their region’s students. So when violinist Yuan-Qing Yu proposed being an Ensemble-in- Residence at Valparaiso University, the other members were on board. Since then, Civitas has traveled to Valparaiso at least twice every year, mentoring and coaching young musicians and performing free concerts for students and the public. “They’re an incredibly kind population, so it’s a wonderful school to be a part of,” says Lawrie Bloom, Civitas’ clarinetist.

While they’re on campus, Civitas members give private coaching sessions to individual students, spend time with various chamber groups to give feedback, and sit in on student orchestra rehearsals to provide guidance and notes. Dennis Friesen-Carper, a music professor at Valparaiso and conductor of the Valparaiso University Symphony Orchestra, says getting the chance to study with the professional members of Civitas is an invaluable experience for the students. “It gives our students the opportunity to be right next to these fantastic players, hear interesting music and get to interact with them, particularly in the coaching of our chamber music ensembles,” Friesen-Carper says. Civitas members have played solo and double concerti with the VUSO with music by Brahms, Mozart, Bruch, Dvorak, and Piazzola.

Members of Civitas teach students everything from how to improve their phrasing to giving technical advice. But Friesen-Carper thinks the most valuable advice they provide is teaching students about the nuances of performing together as a chamber group — a very different skill than what one learns playing in an orchestra. “In chamber music settings, it’s about getting them to listen more intently, to know when to assert and lead, versus following,” says Winston Choi, Civitas’ pianist. Because chamber music groups aren’t led by conductors, players need to learn how to listen to the other members to stay in sync, and they need to have a strong grasp of the entire piece, rather than just their own parts, so they can get back on track should the group go astray. “The last time I was at Valparaiso, I had a string quartet and they each knew their parts very well, but they were each counting their parts. In the short time I was with them, I got them to focus on trusting each other and listening to each other,” Yu says. “I think that’s the part I really enjoy — feeling like I made a difference.”

Bloom says they also focus on teaching the students in the chamber groups how to subtly gesture to the other members when they want them to moderate their tempo. “In any chamber group, any member in the group needs to learn how to indicate when we need to have something happen, and that’s a skill. People think that’s simple, but it’s not simple,” he says. Bloom encourages the chamber music groups he coaches to study the entire score so they know where to come in. “They’re too focused on their own part and they forget that that has to relate to someone else’s part. If you have rest, what else is going on?”

Friesen-Carper says the students often make big progress when they receive feedback from the Civitas members. “Having the chance to interact with these professionals gives the students an opportunity to move up to the next level with a criticism that might shake them out of their day-to- day, step-by- step progression,” he says. “Also they give a different point of view. There are times when the members of Civitas suggest an interpretation that is different than the professor who has been doing the coaching, and that’s all welcome.”

Choi agrees that they are often able to help students have a breakthrough, simply by offering different feedback than they usually get. “Sometimes, it’s the same points that their teachers have made, but hearing somebody else say it, often in different contexts and with different wording, can help to really inspire the change to be more embraced,” he says.

At Valparaiso, many of the students who perform in the orchestra or chamber groups are majoring in something other than music, and the majority are not interested in pursuing a career in music. But having the opportunity to work one-on- one with the professional musicians of Civitas can inspire a love of music that will last a lifetime. “Civitas is really working with people who are going to be experienced amateurs, as well as professionals and those who are going to be mostly savvy music consumers,” Friesen-Carper states. “So they are really nurturing the love of music and the understanding of Western music tradition in a very broad range of student musicians.”

Bloom confirms it is just as gratifying to mentor these students as it is to mentor those who want to become professional musicians. “They may be the next generation of audience members, and we need that just as much,” Bloom says.

Chinese Concerts Launch Year of the Dog

Civitas Ensemble believes one of the best ways to bring cultures together, to make the world a more beautiful and inclusive place, is through music.

Last year, we collaborated with superstar violinist Pavel Šporcl and The Gipsy Way Ensemble from the Czech Republic in part to reduce the stigma around the Romani (otherwise known as gypsy) culture and the Roma people. The MacArthur International Connections funded project instead elevated Romani traditions and musicians. Earlier this season, we celebrated French and Czech composers who were influenced by Russian composers in Paris to highlight the importance of cross-cultural pollination with a program collaboratively designed with the Driehaus Museum in conjunction with their L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters exhibit.

This winter, as we celebrate the Year of the Dog, we’re excited to bring audiences music from contemporary Chinese composers that have been influenced by both Eastern and Western music to show audiences a range of ways in which these two cultures can come together musically.

In our concerts on February 26 and March 4, we will perform two pieces written by modern Chinese composers — “Emanations of Tara” by Yao Chen and “Five Elements” by Zhou Long. Both composers are known for creating music that combines elements of both Western and Eastern sensibilities — perhaps because both were originally born in China but then spent time studying music in the United States.

Yao Chen was born in China and came to the United States in 2001 at the age of 23, where he earned his Ph.D. in composition at the University of Chicago and later taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and Illinois State University. He now lives in Beijing.

After a long, distinguished education in China learning both classical and traditional Chinese music, before and after the Cultural revolution, Zhou earned a Doctor in Musical Arts at Columbia University. A citizen of the United States, Zhou has taught and composed extensively, and is the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his opera, Madame White Snake.

Both “Emanations of Tara” and “Five Elements” use a combination of Western instruments with the pipa, a traditional Chinese string instrument, to create a sound that is wholly unique.

“The pipa is also called the Chinese lute,” explains Yihan Chen, a well-known pipa player who will be playing the instrument at both concerts. “It is held vertically, and I use my right hand fingers to pluck the strings outward to make a bright and clear sound. The pipa is a very expressive instrument. It can play very beautiful sounds and also can play some dramatic sound effects, which works well for new music.” Plans are also under way to record both pieces for a second album with Chicago’s Cedille Records are in the coming weeks.

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