She was No. 51 that day in 1995. There was a No. 50 and maybe a No. 52.
But Yuan-Qing Yu was more than a number, though she was a kid then. She had been the most acclaimed young violinist in China, a state-sponsored touring star-in-waiting, a state asset of the Communist government, and then an international recruiting catch for Southern Methodist University.
She doesn’t remember being fearful of her new life alone in a country about which she’d only read. But she’d always gripped her own life in her own hands. And two weeks after a professor from the far off, strange realm of Dallas asked, she left Shanghai for America.
“Yes, I think I always wanted to live a life of achievement,” she says now. “I don’t remember exactly what I thought when I was 10, but my parents always taught me to aim high. Yes, aim big. So, I always knew I’d be a solo violinist, but I never thought about being here in the States.”
She’d been introduced to the violin at 6 by her father, an intellectual whose musical ambitions were thwarted by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Her teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory fueled her ambition. And then she bolted for America at age 19.
“Too good a chance to turn down,” she says. “But even on my own (at SMU) I was never afraid. I often think of that, and wonder why I wasn’t. Life here is very different from China. Maybe I was just young and dumb.”
And now, her great expectations would meet the defining moment. She was auditioning for the open seat in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s violin section. Is there a bigger moment in a professional violinist’s life? Unlikely. Her future was literally in her hands, as had always seemed the case.
Of the 7.34 billion humans on the planet, only 1,000 or so at any moment deserve the job Yu was trying to earn. The process is not designed to be easy. CSO’s blind auditions draw anyone who wishes to compete when a seat opens. It’s a secretly executed cattle call.
The judges decide almost right away, after candidate groups play behind the screen. On that day, they said yes to Yuan-Qing Yu, but she now feels they validated more than her talent. They said yes to her heart. Two years later she’d scale the same process to claim the Assistant Concertmaster role.
She has become, by every measure, a sublime, virtuoso star.
This was before husband Ron Mui, before teen children Margaret and Aaron, before devotion to her lovely historic home in Evanston, and before solo performances with the CSO that reviewers routinely call “exquisite.” That day in 1995 was likely before the CSO knew how good she would be. Not merely as a musician, but good in deeper ways.
One example of this is the Civitas Ensemble which she invented in 2011 along with clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, cellist Kenneth Olson, and pianist Winston Choi. The underlying principle of this chamber quartet is remarkably more complex than great professionals playing music. It’s experimental civic humanity. They are trying to prove that music has a vaguely understood curative, restorative power on both those who play and those who hear.
What if music actually is the metaphysical line that connects society?
What if great art is literally necessary?
So one of the great musical inventions of modern America plays for parents and their children, doctors, and nurses in cancer wards and waiting rooms; plays for the incapacitated elderly in retirement centers; plays anywhere for students. They teach; they share; they unleash unusual premier works created just for them.
They have just spent a year sharing stages in both Prague and Chicago with the world’s premier Romani (Gypsy) musical ensemble. Nothing defeats centuries of cultural bias like music soaring from the heart. The McArthur Foundation (they of the annual “genius grants”) thought Yu’s Romani outreach was so splendid the foundation paid for the entire international exchange. Civitas is, in a word, admired.
The captain of these happy guardians of the universe is Yu. She is feeling somewhat banged up today. Playing a CSO Stradivarius violin is a physical challenge of skill, endurance, muscle, and ligaments. Great violinists are essentially athletes, despite their elegance.
“I have tennis elbow, though I don’t play tennis; golf elbow, though I don’t play golf, and while stretching I broke the first rib near my shoulder. The performance doctor demanded to see the X-ray and wouldn’t believe I broke it that way. She said only baseball pitchers break a rib that way. But I also have a rotator cuff (shoulder) injury. Every section of the orchestra suffers injuries.”
But she’s always had muscular hands to grip the Strad and wrench magical, emotional sounds from it. “I have meaty fingers,” she says with a laugh. “It helps with vibrato. And I chew my fingernails. It’s a terrible habit. But at least they aren’t bleeding right now.”
If she were ever tempted to self-pity, Yu remembers the parents and children in the Lurie Children Hospital ward. The parents talked softly in their fear, and the children sometimes played quietly with video games to pass the time between chemo treatments.
It is mostly for them she plays in Civitas.
She sat beside her 5-1/2-year-old son for months in that same ward as he defeated leukemia. “I think there are times when music can touch people and heal in ways that words cannot,” she has said.
Sadly, no one came to play Brahms for her and her son that year. No one came to interrupt loneliness. She remembers the fear. If curative music would ever come to the cancer ward, she figured someone would have to lend their hands.
Those hands were hers.