Audiences at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra rarely get a chance to see Cynthia Yeh up close, but they certainly have heard her.
The principal percussionist for the CSO since 2009, Yeh is the petite figure frequently on the move at the back of the stage where, depending on the piece, she might be playing a variety of the standard percussion section instruments (bass drum, snares, tam tam, cymbals, triangle, tambourine), or mallet instruments (xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel), or special drums (bongos, congas, djembes), or more unusual sound-makers like a wind machine, a slapstick, a ratchet, a police whistle, a bird call, various bells and chimes, or a guiro (a hollow gourd with ridges, rubbed with a stick, often used in Latin music). And, if the orchestra is playing a movie soundtrack, she might even devise an instrument of her own to capture the necessary sound, like a mobile of dozens of silver keys dangling from a small plastic frame.
As percussionists will remind you with a bemused smile, no matter what you are playing you cannot easily hide a percussion error. You are just “strong and wrong,” according to Yeh, who still recalls the gaffe she made during a rehearsal of Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 7,” whose one big percussive moment calls for cymbals.
“Maestro [Bernard] Haitink was conducting, and I blew it,” said Yeh. “But he just said, ‘Don’t worry.’” (The CSO will play that same Bruckner symphony under Maestro Riccardo Muti this week as its fall season begins (Sept. 22-27), with a program that also includes Strauss’ “Don Juan” and Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain.”
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Not surprisingly, Yeh is a perfectionist. She not only meticulously arranges every instrument needed during a performance, but carefully choreographs her movements from one instrument to another, and even maps out page turns in the score in order to get the flow right. She also chooses her shoes and outfits to conform to the instruments she will be playing.
“Conductors won’t always call your cue, so I am always counting rests and listening,” Yeh explained. “I’m also the one who looks at each score of the standard rep to be played during the season, and assigns the required parts to the three other percussionists in the section. The big surprises come later with any new scores, like Mason Bates’ ‘Alternative Energy,’ which had tons of percussion.”
So what drove Yeh to percussion in the first place? It’s a long story.
Born in Taiwan, Yeh went to her older brother’s piano classes instead of staying with a babysitter, and by the age of four she was smitten. In third grade she was accepted to one of four newly established elementary schools with intensive music programs, where she had to learn a secondary instrument. She chose the French horn, but by sixth grade she had braces and no longer could play it. At 10, Yeh and her family moved to Vancouver, Canada, and in high school she just wanted to be part of the band. Her piano training made her ideal for the xylophone. And so, as Yeh confesses: “For the first time in my life I could have fun and goof off, because band music was so easy. Plus, we got to go on trips.” She also took a few drum lessons.
Music, however, was still not thought of as a career (“My piano teacher discouraged all of us, saying music was no way to earn a living”), and when she enrolled at the University of British Columbia she was headed for a degree in business. But during her second semester she switched gears, homed in again on her piano playing, and signed up for a percussion ensemble she thought would result in easy credits. As it turned out, it was extremely difficult, but she became hooked on percussion, ultimately putting the piano behind her. Things changed further when, by the end of her third year, she won a big scholarship to the Aspen Music Festival, made her first visit to the United States and realized how much work she had to do.
After graduating with a music performance degree in 1999, Yeh earned a masters from Temple University in Philadelphia and went on to freelance, all the time vowing that if she didn’t “make it” in music by the age of 30 she would go back to studying business. But in 2004, she was named principal percussionist with the San Diego Symphony, and three years later, she auditioned for the Chicago Symphony, where Pierre Boulez asked her to play two xylophone excerpts — one from Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and another from a fiendishly difficult piece by Gyorgy Ligeti, the Hungarian modernist.
Yeh, now 39, loves the music of three Russian masters of the 20th century — Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich — and says she is looking forward to Maestro Muti conducting Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (Oct. 14 and 18), and Prokofiev’s epic film score for “Ivan the Terrible” (Feb. 23-25), to be narrated by Gerard Depardieu. She also is curious about the March 9 program led by Esa-Pekka Solonen, for which Yo-Y0 Ma will be soloist in the world premiere of Solonen’s “Cello Concerto.”
When not working, Yeh loves hiking in Switzerland, and listens to everything from Afro-Cuban music, to jazz standards and flamenco. As for hip-hop? “Only when I’m driving.”