Clarinetist  John  Bruce  Yeh

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie.
The first is mainly about the basset horn,
and the second is devoted to new music.


John Bruce Yeh joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1977, the first Asian musician ever appointed to the CSO, and is now the longest-serving clarinetist in CSO history. Having joined the CSO at the invitation of Sir Georg Solti as Clarinetist and Solo Bass Clarinetist, John is currently Assistant Principal and Solo E-flat Clarinet of the orchestra. He served the CSO as Acting Principal Clarinet from 2008-2011, and has also performed as guest principal of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Seoul Philharmonic in Korea. A prize winner at both the 1982 Munich International Music Competition and the 1985 Naumburg Clarinet Competition in New York, he continues to solo with orchestras and perform on chamber music series and festivals around the globe. A Yamaha Performing Artist since 1990, John has toured China under the auspices of the Yamaha Corporation.

John has performed concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on several occasions, including the 1998 American premiere of Elliott Carter's Clarinet Concerto with Pierre Boulez conducting, and the 1993 performance of Carl Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto with Neeme Järvi. A concert recording of the Nielsen was released on the CSO CD set Soloists of the Orchestra II: From the Archives, vol. 15.  In 2004, John was featured in Leonard Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs in collaboration with the Hubbard Street Dance Company and the CSO conducted by David Robertson.

An enthusiastic champion of new music, John is the dedicatee of new works for clarinet by numerous composers, ranging from Ralph Shapey to John Williams. His more than a dozen solo and chamber music recordings have earned worldwide critical acclaim. A 2007 release by Naxos is a disc titled Synergy, of single and double concertos with clarinet featuring John, his wife Teresa and his daughter Molly.


John is director of Chicago Pro Musica, which received the Grammy Award in 1986 as Best New Classical Artist. With clarinetist Teresa Reilly, erhu virtuoso Wang Guowei and pipa virtuoso Yang Wei, John formed Birds and Phoenix, an innovative quartet dedicated to musical exploration by bridging Eastern and Western musical cultures.

Passionately committed to music education, John has taught master classes at Juilliard, Eastman, Manhattan School of Music, The Cleveland Institute and many universities and arts academies worldwide. He is on the artist-faculties of Roosevelt University's Chicago College for the Performing Arts, and Midwest Young Artists in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. John is the proud father of Jenna Yeh, a culinary artist and wine specialist in Chicago; Molly Yeh, a percussionist and award-winning blogger in Minnesota; and Mia Reilly-Yeh.

===  From the Yamaha website (artists)  
===  Links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

As noted in his biography above, John Bruce Yeh is a clarinetist, and as such, has explored not only the usual instruments, but literally the entire family... even the rarest ones.

In July of 1987, we got together specifically to chat for WNIB, Classical 97, about the CBS recording of Mozart
’s Music for Basset Horns.  Naturally, we spoke of a few other musical topics, but this was the main thrust of the conversation . . . . .

yeh Bruce Duffie:   We’re going to talk about the basset horn, but you are a clarinet player by trade?

John Bruce Yeh:   That’s right.

BD:   Is there any real difference in playing the basset horn and playing the clarinet?

Yeh:   The major difference is the low notes, the so-called
basset notes that extend beyond the written range of the regular clarinet, which is down to low E.  The basset horn goes down to low C written.

BD:   So, it’s another third down?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Mary Stolper, and Dieter Kober.]

Yeh:   So, it’s a third, involving four extra semitones
E-Flat, D, D-Flat and Cthat you have to learn the fingerings for.

BD:   There are extra keys for your fingers?

Yeh:   Yes, thumb keys and little-finger keys.  A lot of times it requires great agility to play some of the basset horn literature that goes down there.  For example, in the Trio of the first Minuet in Mozart Gran Partita, K. 361, that features clarinets and basset horns, there’s one real tricky lick for the second basset horn that requires a lot of thumb motion.  The other real difficulty is the basset horn fingerings.  Even amongst the French clarinet manufacturers, things haven’t been standardized, so you have to learn one for one manufacturer and, if you happen to switch to another, it will be different.  If you start on a Leblanc, for example, and you happen to switch to a Selmer, you have to learn a different fingering.

BD:   But basically, most of the range is the same fingering as the clarinet?

Yeh:   That’s right, basically.

BD:   Are the keys a little further apart?

Yeh:   Yes.

BD:   So it is almost like switching from violin to viola?

Yeh:   Something like that!  I would say that’s a very good analogy, yes.

BD:   Is the basset horn that you use really an alto clarinet, or is it different from the alto clarinet?

Yeh:   The alto clarinet as we know it in bands and wind ensembles, is pitched in E-Flat, and it only goes down to written low E, which is almost the same as a basset horn except it doesn’t have the extension, and it’s pitched a whole tone lower.  The true basset horn is actually a smaller-bored instrument than the alto clarinet.  The basset horns that we use, made by the Leblanc company of Paris, are actually alto clarinets in F, because they have wider bores, which make them more similar to the alto clarinet in the wind ensemble.

BD:   So, if people in a wind ensemble really wanted to play basset horn literature, they’d just pick up an alto clarinet, and they’d be close?

Yeh:   They’d be close, yes.  In my high school and college career, I played the Gran Partita of Mozart on alto clarinet, which is not a very good solution, but at least it comes closer than having to play them on a regular clarinet.

BD:   Do the basset horns come in different sizes, as the clarinet does?

Yeh:   No.  The basset horn is, by definition, pitched in F, so it’s one size, one length, and has all the low notes.  So, that’s standardized.

BD:   There’s no such thing as a soprano basset horn or a bass basset horn?

yeh Yeh:   No.  If you’re talking about soprano basset horns, you might be referring to what’s commonly known nowadays as the basset clarinet, which is the clarinet in A, or even B-Flat, that has been extended down to written C.  I happen to have one, and nowadays more and more performers are playing the Mozart clarinet works on these instruments.  For example, the Clarinet Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet are played on the extended A clarinet, which is known as the basset clarinet.  So, if you want to talk about the different ranges and the different sizes of basset horn, this isn’t a true basset horn but it’s a basset clarinet.

BD:   Is there knowledge of why Mozart used the basset horn instead of the clarinet?

Yeh:   Yes.  From the scholarship that we’ve been doing in recent years, it’s come to light that the person who was the dedicatee of most of the Mozart clarinet works
Anton Stadler (1752-1812)and his brother, Johann Stadler (1755-1804), and a couple of other fellow musicians, were all in the Masonic Lodge.  [In 1782, Emperor Joseph II issued a decree to have the Stadler brothers hired as members of the Vienna Court Orchestra, where Johann played first clarinet, and Anton played second.  In 1801, Beethoven wrote the basset horn part in the ballet Creatures of Prometheus for Johann.]  They all played clarinet, and the Stadlers had specially-made instruments that were extended down to low C.  So, they were adept at playing this extended-ranged instrument, and that’s why nowadays it’s become fashionable.  But I think it’s more advantageous to play the Mozart works on the extended clarinet because of the historical reasons.

BD:   So whenever you’re asked to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto or the Quintet, you’ll insist on using the basset clarinet?

Yeh:   Yes.  Since I now own one, I would certainly relish the opportunity to play those pieces on the more authentic instrument.

BD:   Is there any reason at all now to play them on the standard clarinet?

Yeh:   Not if you have an excellent basset clarinet, not at all, no.  The basset range is much more colorful, and it follows the musical contours better.  You can see exactly why Mozart would have liked to have heard the works that way.  And, as you know by listening to some recent recordings of those pieces, it’s hard to go back to listening to the other way.   

BD:   Think about the clarinet choir
, a choir of clarinets from the little ones to the big ones.  Does the basset horn fit into that at all?

Yeh:   When you’re talking about a clarinet choir, it’s more in the traditional wind ensemble style, mostly to be found in universities, and they don’t usually have access to basset horns.  Although I must say I’m not familiar with it, most of the literature is probably written with alto clarinet in E-Flat in mind.  The basset horn really is less rare now than it was ten or fifteen years ago, but it still is a very rare instrument, and you generally wouldn’t find it in a clarinet choir.

BD:   Is it satisfying to play the basset horn?

Yeh:   Because of the repertoire that’s been created for it by Mozart, and by some more modern composers like Strauss for example, it’s very satisfying to play the great music that’s been written for the instrument.  By far, Mozart wrote more music for the basset horn than anybody else.  The Divertimenti, which are often played on two clarinets and bassoon, also have been shown to have been originally written for three basset horns.

BD:   Three basset horns of the same size?  [Besides the photo of Yeh and his Chicago Symphony colleagues on the LP jacket shown below, to view another photo of three basset horns held by performers, see my interview with Sabine Meyer.]

Yeh:   That’s right, but there’s a top voice, a middle voice, and a bottom voice.

BD:   But two clarinets and a bassoon would be two different ranges?

Yeh:   That’s right!  The third basset horn is generally written in a lower tessitura, of course, whereas the first basset horn never uses any of the basset notes.  So, in that way they are different ranges, but you play them on the same instruments.  So, it’s three equal instruments playing the different ranges.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Does the basset horn require the same reed as an alto clarinet, and the same ligature?

Yeh:   That’s another thing.  The basset horns that we use are made by Leblanc.  The Chicago Symphony has two of them, and they are really alto clarinets in F, so we use alto clarinet mouthpieces.  However, I usually use alto saxophone reeds because they seem to work well, and they fit okay.

BD:   Is that a little heavier reed?

Yeh:   It’s a little bit heavier, and it’s got a little more heart to the sound than the alto clarinet reed.

yeh BD:   Do you spend a lot of time whittling on reeds?

Yeh:   Oh, yes!  [Both laugh]  Every clarinetist really has to deal with that, but on the basset horn it’s probably less critical a problem than it is for the regular clarinet, simply because it’s a larger instrument.  That’s maybe not a fair statement but its how I feel about it.

BD:   When I played bassoon in high school and college (studying with Wilbur Simpson of the Chicago Symphony), I was always whittling on reeds.

Yeh:   Right!  Reeds are the bane of the reed player.

BD:   Maybe we should have taken up the flute...  [Both laugh]

Yeh:   No, I love the clarinet family, and the repertoire that’s written for it.  So, we put up with that aspect of the life.

BD:   In your career, have you played all the instruments in the clarinet family, from the little tiny ones to the great big huge ones?

Yeh:   Yes, I think I have played each one at one time or another.  I can’t really say that I’ve regularly performed on the extreme members of the family, although we have, on occasion, performed pieces in the orchestra requiring contra-bass clarinet in B-Flat.  That’s always a very amusing, if not greatly satisfying experience.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is it at all like playing contrabassoon?

Yeh:   I’m not quite sure it’s like the contrabassoon, because bassoonists generally have opportunities to play contrabassoon, whereas the contra-bass clarinet is really a very unusual instrument.  In fact, it
s funny that the point should come up, because the Donald Martino Triple Concerto was written for soprano clarinet, bass clarinet, and contra-bass clarinet, and we have plans to play this at the University of Chicago with the Contemporary Chamber Players, and Ralph Shapey.  [In the interview, Martino said it was a wonderful performance.]  So, it’s an exciting plan, and I’m going to be playing the contra-bass clarinet.

BD:   [With a slight nudge]  The three of you drew lots and you lost?

Yeh:   [Smiles]  No, I’ve always had in mind playing that part, and I’m going to try and get the best instrument possible.  I don’t own one unfortunately, but there are some very beautifully made rosewood contra-bass clarinets.

BD:   Probably some obscure small high school will have one.

Yeh:   You know, I think they have them.  So, if there are any band directors out there, we’re looking for a very good B-Flat contra-bass clarinet [about nine feet in length].

BD:   B-Flat, or double-B-Flat?

Yeh:   It would be double-B-Flat, that’s right, one octave below the bass clarinet.  Also, at the other end of the spectrum, there is an A-Flat clarinet [fourteen inches] that is even higher than the piccolo E-Flat clarinet [nineteen inches], which I generally play in the orchestra.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  You’re kidding!?!

Yeh:   I once had an opportunity to play the A-Flat clarinet in Vienna, where the Schrammelmusik Quartet performs.  It plays wine-garden music, and consists of two violins, a bass guitar, and a tiny A-Flat clarinet.

BD:   I would think you’d be afraid of breaking the thing!

Yeh:   [Laughs]  The guy that was playing it was so tiny, that the instrument looked like a regular piccolo E-Flat clarinet when he was playing it.  But when I picked it up, it looked like a toothpick, and it felt very interesting to play.  Certainly, the range isn’t that great, but the colors you can get in the low register are beautiful for that combination of instruments.  So that’s the range of the clarinet family, and it runs the gamut.  Then there are the basset clarinet and the basset horn between the A clarinet and the alto clarinet [forty-three inches], plus the bass clarinet [four and a half feet].

BD:   If you play this same note at the same pitch on the alto clarinet and the basset horn, will they sound identical?

Yeh:   Not really.  The basset horn has a more covered sound, and is a bit less treble sounding.  It really would sound similar, but it wouldn’t necessarily sound the same.  It really depends on the register.  In the higher register of the basset horn, it might start to approach the sound of a clarinet, but in the middle register or the lower register, it has a much more covered, less penetrating quality than a regular clarinet.  For example, if I were to play a low F on the basset horn, and then switched over to the regular clarinet, there would be a definite difference, particularly in that register.  But if you go up to a higher octave, they would be much more similar.  So, the real difference with the basset horn is what gave it its name, which is the lowest notes.  The basset hound is a low dog.  The basset horn is a low instrument, but it’s not really a horn.  It’s just been dubbed that for some reason.
BD:   Just as the english horn is neither English, nor a horn!

Yeh:   Right.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   For the basset horn, do you use a neck strap to help balance the instrument?

Yeh:   Yes, because of the need to use the thumb not only for support, but also for low fingerings.  Sometimes you have to rely on the neck strap to support the entire instrument if you’re using the thumb a lot to play the fingerings.  When we stand, it’s really mandatory to use the strap.

BD:   Bass clarinets sit on the floor?  
[Vis-à-vis the photo on the record cover at right, the performers are Williard Elliot (also the transcriber of the Grieg) at far right, immediately left of him is Wilbur Simpson, and behind Wilbur is Ray Still.  Others shown (l-r) are Grover Schiltz, oboe, John Bruce Yeh, clarinet, Norman Schweikert (top), horn, Larry Combs, clarinet, and Daniel Gingrich, horn.]

Yeh:   That’s right!  We have a peg, also.  When we’re sitting, there’s a peg that you can fix to the bell of the basset horn.

BD:   Do you ever think of using a
Rostropovich endpin?  [That is the one with a bend in it.]

Yeh:   When we’re sitting down, the basset horn is practically vertical, up and down, and you can tilt it, but certainly not that much like a cello.  It’s a very wide-ranging instrument.  Besides the low notes, it can go very high.

BD:   Does the basset horn have more notes on it than a clarinet?

Yeh:   Yes, it does simply because of the fact that it’s got the low notes.

BD:   It has all the same upper register, but then it also has extra notes at the bottom?

Yeh:   That’s right.  It’s too bad that more modern composers haven’t written for it, because it does have a showy range.

BD:   If you’re asking a modern composer to write for it, would you suggest that they write for the basset horn as a solo, or in ensemble with other instruments?

Yeh:   Both ways are very effective, but more so in an ensemble because that’s where the experience of playing a basset horn really has come.  There are very few solo pieces for basset horn.  It would be nice, of course, to enrich the literature for the basset horn solo, but there are only a handful of pieces.  Alessandro Rolla (April 23, 1757 - September 14, 1841) wrote a concerto, and there’s a piece by Alois Beerhalter (July 8, 1798 - March 8, 1858 [though other dates appear in various articles, these are according to MGG, the foremost German-language music encyclopedia]) called Variations on a German Folksong.

BD:   Were they both friends of Stadler?

Yeh:   These were later than Mozart, but they had been influenced by at least that line of heritage.

BD:   If a composer wrote something for basset horn, would the several players who play basset horn grab onto it immediately and take it around?

Yeh:   I would imagine so.

BD:   That’s a guarantee of performance.

Yeh:   Certainly there would be people interested in doing it.  Of course, there aren’t that many players that specialize in the basset horn, but I’m sure those that do would be interested.

BD:   Have you specialized in the basset horn, or do you specialize in the whole clarinet family?

Yeh:   I specialize in the whole family.  Just the fact that we have access to a basset horn is a reason to be a specialist, because they are very hard to get a hold of.  We’ve had this advantage, therefore we have been able to play the literature.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Have you ever had the vision of becoming a touring basset horn virtuoso?

Yeh:   [Bursts out laughing]  No, to be quite honest!  Actually, Stadler probably was the closest to that, that ever has been, and he was a clarinetist first and a basset horn also.  With the way the literature is, that’s the only way one could really make a career of playing the basset horn.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you like the sound that comes back at you on the recordings of the basset horn?

Yeh:   Referring to our Chicago Symphony Winds recording of Mozart Music for Basset Horns, we’re very pleased with the way that turned out.  The engineers, Larry Rock and Jim Unrath, and CBS did a wonderful job in mastering, and we really couldn’t have asked for more.

BD:   [Noting that the LP set (shown below) had recently been re-issued on CD]  Are you pleased with the CD sound in general?  [Remember, this interview was held in 1987, when sales of CDs were about to eclipse those of LPs, and would overtake cassettes in 1991.  Just for reference, after having been introduced into the market in 1983, by 2018 all the big retail outlets had phased out their sales of CDs.]

Yeh:   Yes, in fact in this particular case, the CD is a slight improvement over the other formats.  The acoustic in which these recordings were made was very reverberant and wet, and on the CD this effect has been a little bit dried out, so there’s more clarity.  It worked out very nicely, and I’m glad that they finally did issue it on CD, because that’ll certainly attract a lot of attention.  Nowadays, the CD is the format is attracting the most attention from the buying public.


BD:   You’re an orchestral player who plays in the live orchestra all the time.  How do you feel about people who listen to records perhaps too intently?

Yeh:   Recording is really a different aspect of music than live performance.  It is a different process.  A recording is generally made under conditions that couldn’t possibly be the same as in a live performance.  First of all, there’s not usually an audience.  Second, microphones are placed all over the place, and often the piece is recorded in small segments, and then put together to ensure note accuracy.  Often times, and I’m very sorry to say especially these days, the sound on some of the recordings is overly manipulated.  I really don’t think sometimes that the representation of records is a true and accurate picture of what’s actually coming out of the orchestra.

BD:   At what point does it become a fraud?

Yeh:   That’s a very good way to put it. 
Fraud is maybe not too strong a word to use in some of our modern-day recording products that come out with individual players or individual sections turned up or turned down.  One can really manipulate, the sound of an instrument or the sound of anything very widely these days with modern technology.  Once in a while a recording engineer will go a little bit too far, and manipulate too much, and actually create balances in the control room that are contrary to what the performer has in mind.  That is the point at which the recording becomes a fraud.

yeh BD:   Should the performer or the conductor be involved in all of this to make sure that that kind of thing doesn’t happen?

Yeh:   They should!  They should definitely be the only person that’s involved in doing this sort of balance, with the assistance of the engineers, of course.  But often times a conductor or a performer is... I wouldn’t say disregarded, but perhaps led to believe that the way the engineer wants a recording to sound is fine, and that’s the way it should be.  But then, in the end, it probably doesn’t sound right to the musician, or at least to me, sometimes.

BD:   Despite that, is playing the clarinet fun?

Yeh:   [Enthusiastically]  Yes!  I would say it’s a lot of fun!  It can be entertaining to play certain repertoire.  Particularly the chamber music and orchestra literature is so rich for the clarinet.  I would say that when we have a great piece like the Brahms Quintet or the Gran Partita of Mozart, playing the clarinet is fun.  Playing music is fun, I would say, very enjoyable.

BD:   Let me ask you a great big philosophical question.  What is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

Yeh:   Oh, boy!  That is a great big one!  I would say it’s to enrich people; to enrich people’s outlook; to create a response in people, perhaps a positive response, or happy feelings, or maybe an introspective feeling.  Like any art does, it is a way of stimulating the senses of humanity.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Yeh:   Oh, sure!  I’m very optimistic about the future of music!  For myself, at least, it’s wonderful to be a performing musician.  I don’t know what my life would be without it, but it certainly wouldn’t be as enjoyable or as full as it is.  In terms of new repertoire and of performers, it’s mind-boggling.  Every year we hear the quality of young performers stepping onto the stage.  For example, in front of our orchestra we have a young-performers competition, and each year there is just consistently a high level of quality amongst the finalists.  They perform, and it’s incredible.  I can just look ten years back to when I was at Juilliard, and some of my classmates have been catapulted to world fame, and it’s not for no reason.  It’s because they’re wonderful players.  Great music is being created nowadays, and the future of music looks good.  In terms of artistic quality and enrichment of the culture, I’m very optimistic.

BD:   When you’re playing a concert, is there ever a time, or even an evening, when you attain that real perfection?

Yeh:   Yes.  There are often those moments when you feel especially good about performing.  There are certain real highs that occur, and that
s what makes being a musician great.  Its the only thing that I would do.  It’s because of those thrills.  It’s because of the musical satisfaction that comes with making music with great players, with great conductors, and playing great literature.

BD:   How long does it take the orchestra as a whole to adjust to a new conductor?

Yeh:   It really depends from conductor to conductor, and from orchestra to orchestra.  Specifically referring to the Chicago Symphony, one conductor put if very aptly, saying it has the best digestive system of any orchestra in the world.  That’s indicative of the fact that everybody is a very sensitive musician, and can react very quickly.  Our orchestra probably would take less time to get used to a new conductor than just about any other orchestra.  That’s amply displayed in the wide variety of recordings and concerts that we give with all sorts of different conductors.  The sound changes very definitely when we move from one conductor to another.

BD:   So, the orchestra lets the conductor mold the sound of his taste?

Yeh:   That’s right, particularly if the conductor is a great musician.  If a conductor is technically very proficient, you can play very cleanly very soon with that sort of conductor.  But getting used to his sort of expression may take longer even with a conductor that’s very proficient.  On the other hand, if you have a conductor that communicates differently, maybe on a deeper level that perhaps goes beyond simple baton-technique, you can get used to certain aspects of that very easily, also.  We’ve had very good fortune in our orchestra with conductors.

BD:   The Chicago Symphony can demand the best.

Yeh:   Right, and it’s been very rewarding.  I can remember some incredible experiences with conductors like Carlo Maria Giulini, and Carlos Kleiber, and Sir Georg Solti, of course.

BD:   Before you came to the Chicago Symphony, you played in other orchestras?

Yeh:   Only in student orchestras.  The Chicago Symphony was my first professional position.  I came here on bass clarinet, and a couple of years later moved several octaves up to the E-Flat, so I’ve run the gamut.

BD:   Did you know that would happen when you were hired as the bass clarinetist?

Yeh:   No, that didn’t even cross my mind.

BD:   Did you want to spend forty years playing the bass clarinet???

Yeh:   [Laughs]  Well, at that point, I was so happy to have been accepted into one of the great orchestras of the world that I was happy to be doing that at that time.  It didn’t really cross my mind what would be in the future.

BD:   Are you where you want to be now?

Yeh:   Right now, I’m very pleased in my position, yes.  I’ve got the flexibility of playing all different instruments.  Playing chamber music is a great love of mine, and I have the opportunity to do that with Chicago Pro Musica, and with the Chicago Symphony Winds.  It’s a very well-balanced musical diet.

BD:   You’re very lucky.

Yeh:   I am very lucky I must say!  It’s been a fortunate road for me.

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me today.

Yeh:   Thank you.  I
’ve enjoyed it very much.

We now move ahead almost nine years, and talk about works which had been recently written . . . . .

BD:   Why the huge interest in new music?

Yeh:   [Laughs]  I suppose because I love bringing music to its first life, and working with composers to do that.  It gives me something new to do, and it compliments my love and interest in existing classical music.

BD:   When you go back to a nineteenth century work, do you look at it with new eyes?

Yeh:   Absolutely!  This is something that I learned early on, and actually came from the Juilliard Quartet, whom I idolized when I was in high school.  I got to know Robert Mann early on when I was at the Aspen Festival, and he said, “We always play music that was written yesterday as though it were written three hundred years ago, and we always play Beethoven or Mozart as though it were written yesterday!”  That’s a very, very interesting, and very, very useful way of looking at interpretation.
BD:   So rather than contracting music, it expands music?

Yeh:   Absolutely.

BD:   From playing eighteenth century music, nineteenth century music, twentieth century music, and almost twenty-first century music now, what’s the purpose of music?

Yeh:   Ideally, the music touches the soul.

BD:   That’s what you strive for in your performance?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with William Neil, and Frank Abbinanti.]

Yeh:   Absolutely!

BD:   When you get a new piece, how do you decide if it’s something you want to perform, or if it’s something that you think maybe ought to have a little more work, or maybe not even get to see the light of day?

Yeh:   I do get a lot of music coming my way, and I can’t possibly program all of it.  There are some unsolicited pieces that come to me, and while they look interesting, I may not find an opportunity to perform them in the foreseeable future.  There are certain pieces that wouldn’t interest me, it’s fair to say.

BD:   This is what I’m trying to zero in on.  What is it that makes you say yes, you want to do this, or no, you don’t want to try it?

Yeh:   There are a variety of different reasons, and one of them would have to be personal contact with the composer.  In fact, if it was somebody that I know personally, that I’ve developed a relationship with in working on a piece from its genesis
for example, a commissionthen I would feel more than a reason to perform it, and to perform it often, and to perform it in depth.  Otherwise, there might be a piece that comes my way, or a piece that I’ve heard someone else perform that intrigues me because it touched my soul, and I wanted to pursue it.

BD:   I usually try to look at the upside, but let me look at the downside just for a minute.  Without mentioning any names, has there ever been a time, or could you conceive of a time when you’d look at a composer and say, “I don’t ever want to play this piece!”?

Yeh:   Yes.  I have a pretty open mind about that.  Some people accuse me of playing anything, but I would probably try to have as open a mind as possible about any music that comes my way.  But yes, there have been times when I would say this is not for me.  I wouldn’t say, “I would never want to play this piece,” because there may be an opportunity that comes up where I would want to play a piece that, at first, I discarded or put aside.

BD:   Do you ever encourage revisions?

Yeh:   Yes, but not unless it’s a composer that I’ve been working with from the very beginning.  If it’s a commissioned work, and there are certain things that seem awkward, or not as effective as possible, then the composer would be there, and we would discuss it, and a revision might ensue.

BD:   As a general rule, what should composers know about the clarinet that they usually miss, or that would make it a good piece or a technically better piece?

Yeh:   Composers should compose vocally.  It’s difficult to play a piece if it can’t be sung.  I really believe in a vocal concept on any instrument, especially the clarinet.  I encourage a vocal concept, and even if it’s aleatoric or disjunct-sounding music, if it can be vocalized, then it would probably have more of an affinity for the instrument as well.

BD:   Would you ever want a text so that you’d sing a little bit and play a little bit?

Yeh:   Not necessarily a text, no.  I’m just talking about the vocal inflection and quality of sound.

BD:   Have you ever done anything with multi-phonics, like William O. Smith?

Yeh:   I haven’t done anything with a lot of multi-phonics.  William O. Smith’s pieces are mostly multi-phonic.  I know he wrote a piece called Variants that’s almost entirely multi-phonic.  I’m really not experienced at that, but a few of the pieces that I have performed involve a multi-phonics here or there.

BD:   I just wondered how vocal multi-phonics can be.

Yeh:   It can be vocal if you’re thinking about a vocal ensemble of three or four, or even two.  I play a piece by Elliott Carter called Gra.  It’s an unaccompanied clarinet piece, and it has a dyad in it, which is a double-stop.  It’s two discreet sounding pitches, and that can be produced a certain way on the clarinet.

BD:   Are there any two pitches that can be utilized, or did you tell him this can be done and that can’t be done?

Yeh:   He found out from some other source, because I didn’t consult with him on writing this particular piece.  I saw it after it was written.  He found out that these two notes sound very well together, and are possible to be produced together.  But to answer your question, not just any old notes can be played together on the clarinet.  They have to be certain ones.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean you don’t want to have take your clarinet to the factory and get it re-bored???  [Both laugh]

Yeh:   Certainly not!  [More laughter at the prospect]

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Are there still advances being made in the clarinet itself?

Yeh:   There are advances being made in the clarinet design.  In fact, I work with the Yamaha company, and we fine-tune various different designing aspects of making instruments play with better tone qualities, with better intonation, with different responses, and things like that.
BD:   They come up with an idea, and then you try it to see if it works?

Yeh:   Right!  That’s usually the way it works, yes.  It’s a collaboration.  They listen very carefully to the artists that play their instruments.

BD:   Are there a lot of clarinet players who are into the new music, or do most of them just stick with the Mozart and the Weber?

Yeh:   I would say there are more and more now that are into the new music that’s being written.  Our instrument has inspired a great many composers of our day to write wonderful music, and because of that richness in the repertoire and the intrinsic richness in our instrument, there have been more and more clarinetists that are interested in playing that rich new music that’s been written these days.

BD:   Does it please you that there are so many instruments in the clarinet family, and does it please you especially that you play a number of them?

Yeh:   It pleases me a lot because I think it’s a way to gain variety of expression, as well as variety pitch level on the family of instruments.  In the Chicago Symphony, for example, I’ve played everything from the highest instrument in the clarinet family, which is the piccolo clarinet
that’s actually my specialty in the orchestraall the way down to the very lowest instrument, which is the contrabass clarinet.  I’ve had an opportunity to perform and record on all of those instruments while I’ve been in the Chicago Symphony.

BD:   Should there be solos written for the teeny-tiny one and the great big giant one?

Yeh:   There have been!  As far as concertos go, the little E-Flat clarinet doesn’t have any real concerto repertoire.  Easley Blackwood came about as close to that by writing his Sonatina for Piccolo Clarinet and Piano [CD shown at right], but that’s in an older style, reminiscent of Weber, or Beethoven, or Schubert, which Easley is likely to do these days.  He understands intimately their harmonic language.  Then there’s the Martino Triple Concerto for three clarinets, all in B-Flat, but at different ranges
the soprano clarinet, the bass clarinet, and the contrabass clarinet.  I’ve performed the contrabass clarinet part, and it’s extremely virtuosic.  It’s a wondrous piece of music.

BD:   Should there be a performance of you multi-tracking yourself?

Yeh:   [Laughs]  That’s an interesting idea!  No, I don’t think so.  That is a piece which requires all the players to be there at the same time, performing all the different parts, which we have done with my colleagues, and with Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago.

BD:   What advice do you have for youngsters starting out on the clarinet?

Yeh:   Sing a lot!  I always advise my students to sing more than ever now.  It’s become almost a pet peeve of mine, that they must sing before they play.

BD:   To get the breath support?

Yeh:   To get the concept of vocalism in their ear, they must sing before they play, because if they sing, then they will hear a natural vocal concept.  If they hear a natural vocal concept, they’re more likely to reproduce it on the instrument that they play.  I feel very strongly about that.  The other advice I have is to listen to great instrumentalists and the great vocalists perform, not just to listen to themselves
which is also very important.

BD:   Have a good model?

Yeh:   Absolutely, have many good models.

BD:   Do you encourage them to take a voice lesson, or go to a vocal studio?

Yeh:   That may be helpful, but I’ve never had any vocal coaching.  I just look at the music that I play and that I love, and I sing it to myself.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  It doesn’t even have to be in pitch.  It just has to have the right shape and the right quality.

BD:   You’ve done The Shepherd on the Rock [D. 965 of Schubert], so you’ve worked closely with singers.

Yeh:   That’s true, I certainly have.  In fact, I’m playing it again in the summer at Ravinia with Christoph Eschenbach and Rebecca Evans, a [Welsh] soprano.  

BD:   Is that something special that you look forward to?

Yeh:   Very much so.  That is one of my very favorite pieces.  I love it.  It’s unique in our repertoire
a clarinet obligato in a song that’s actually three songs put together.  It’s not just one song.  It’s a very extended vocal work.  There are three different texts that are put together, and it’s a three-movement work that’s in one continuous stretch.

BD:   Do you make sure that your students know the text, and know where the soprano is going all the time?

Yeh:   Yes, I do encourage that.  In fact, that extends to all ensemble music.  Every ensemble player ideally should know what the rest of their ensemble members are doing.

BD:   Do you find there’s a lot of similarities between playing chamber music and playing orchestral music?

Yeh:   I do.  There’s a lot of chamber music within orchestral music, and there’s a lot orchestra sound, or approach, that works well in chamber music settings, and I have an opportunity to explore both of these because I do have an opportunity to play a lot of chamber music with Chicago Pro Musica.  In fact, we’re preparing a very important concert to be given in Cologne on June 3rd [1996].  The first half of the concert is devoted to chamber music of Elliott Carter, and the second half will include Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.  So, it will be a very interesting concert, and there’s a lot of orchestral style of playing in both of those composers’ chamber works.


BD:   I assume you would not feel so happy if you only played in the orchestra?

Yeh:   I would feel like my diet was out of balance.  I advocate to students, and to others that are interested in being complete musicians, to have a balanced diet
to learn the solo repertoire as well as the orchestral repertoire, and the very rich chamber music repertoire.  All of these are equally important to the well-being of an artist.

BD:   What do conductors not know about the clarinet that they should?

Yeh:   It’s very, very difficult to generalize about conductors, because they run the gamut from very, very knowledgeable and insightful about all instruments, to completely oblivious about any instrument.  It’s difficult to really say what conductors do and don’t know.
BD:   Then let me ask this...  Should the conductor be concerned with your technical problems, or should he or she just make sure that you sound the way they envision the performance in their mind?

Yeh:   It depends on how they envision the sound in their mind.  It’s a matter of communication.  Any conductor’s job is is to communicate, and it’s nice when the conductor and the orchestral performer can see eye to eye on music that they’re both interpreting.  To answer your question about the understanding of technical aspects, I would have to say that the technical aspects of playing should not be emphasized.  In the best performances that I’ve heard, technique is not an issue.  Technique is there, of course, and is necessary, but it disappears as part of the performance.  The best performances are purely expression, with technique as an invisible vehicle.  In the best possible performance, technique is something that disappears.  That’s the way I view a great performance as something that is pure expression, and the technique has to be perfect.  It has to be able to create the impression that the expression of the artist is going directly from that artist to you, and the only way you can get there is through technique.  But the technique itself should be invisible.
BD:   You refine the technique, and then that’s where the music starts?
Yeh:   That’s the means by which music gets communicated.  You don’t notice it.  You just know that you’ve been touched.  That’s the best possible result.  If you make a comment about a performance that was technically impressive, then I view that as not the best possible performance, because if it were the best possible performance, you would say that it was awesome music, not that it was technically well done.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Yeh:   Sure there is.  I’ve been in a good number of perfect performances, subjectively, with
perfection meaning that it moved the listener, or it touched the listener.  For each individual listener and performer, a perfect performance will be different, but on a particular day with a particular artist with a particular listener, there can be perfection.

BD:   But then that perfection could even be improved on next week or next month?

Yeh:   It could be improved on.  It’s a matter of all the stars lining up.  [Both laugh]  It’s a matter of all the parameters being there at that particular moment to create perfection, and yes, I’ve experienced those moments.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Do you play differently for the microphone than you do for a live audience?

Yeh:   [Thinks a moment]  Often times when we perform for a live audience, especially nowadays, the microphone is on.  So, if you’re asking me about a studio recording, where I know I’m going to be able to stop and make a splice or an edit, I would say that there is a psychological difference.  Then there are various different techniques that you learn about how to make an efficient recording, and how to utilize the studio time properly.  Maybe you’ve recorded a work in sections, whereas if you’d played it in a concert performance in front of an audience, you’d want to save yourself a little bit, because you have to play the next section and the next section.  You’ll be able to go all out in front of a microphone, knowing that you could stop if necessary.  In that way, it might be an advantage to performing in front of a microphone.

BD:   Do the tough stuff first when you’re fresh?

Yeh:   You could do that, but there’s a disadvantage because you want to strive for accuracy rather than in a concert performance where you might want to strive for a particular expression, and take a certain risk.  It goes both ways, because sometimes in a recording you’ll be happy to take a risk because you know you can do it over again.  But you are looking at yourself under a different lens when you’re in a studio situation because it’s much more microscopic.  You’re absolutely looking at details much more acutely when you’re performing in front of only a microphone.

BD:   You’ve made a number of recordings.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been released?

Yeh:   In varying degrees I’m pleased.  As a whole, I’m proud of the things that I’ve recorded, and I always learn what to do better next time.  Sometimes I’ll listen and I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  When it really went well, I’ll be glad that I did that on that particular day, because the recording simply is a documentation of the way a performance went on a particular day.  I may play a certain piece of music completely differently than I did on the day I recorded it
the Nielsen Concerto being one of my favorite examples.  I’ve performed that many, many times since the recording was made in 1985... the last time being with the Chicago Symphony with Neemi Järvi in 1993.  I found that my performance of the work has developed and changed over the years.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left (which includes the 1993 performance Yeh speaks of), see my interviews with Dale Clevenger, Charles Pikler, Dennis Russell Davies, Morton Gould, Herbert Blomstedt, and Erich Leinsdorf.  The 1985 recording, with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra and Dieter Kober, is shown near the top of this webpage.]

BD:   Should we never listen to the old record anymore?

Yeh:    No, I wouldn’t want to say that.  You should listen to that as much as you want to!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are there more recordings coming out?

Yeh:   We have just put the finishing touches on the edits of an album called Dialogues with my Shadow.  [CD shown below-right.  Also, see my interview with Robert Carl.]  The title came from the central work on the album, which is Dialogue du L'ombre double, which means Dialogue between a Man and his Shadow by Pierre Boulez.  [Boulez at that time was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony].  He was a friend and colleague who wrote this wonderful work for clarinet and pre-recorded clarinet.  The pre-recorded part was to be spatially distributed through a nine-channel sound system that surrounds the audience.  That in itself is difficult to capture on a recording, although we have captured the spatial aspect, and the dialogue aspect is very, very interesting because the live clarinet is interspersed with pre-recorded segments which are surrounding the audience.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful work.

BD:   Is Boulez happy to know that when he comes here to Chicago that he’s got you and a few others who are really interested in playing his music?

Yeh:   He seems to be, and he’s been very, very generous with his time and his spirit, encouraging me and Howard Sandroff, who is the sound artist that created the computer spatialization part of this work, which we’ve played many times in many different places in the world.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Does it please you to know that there are composers who are writing specifically for you?
Yeh:   Oh yes, of course it does!  It pleases me, and gives me great satisfaction to know that there are composers that are interesting in writing music that involves my performance.  I’m very gratified with those associations.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   [Noting that he would soon turn forty years of age]  You’re about to hit the big Four-Oh.  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Yeh:   Yes, I would say I’m pleased, but I am not necessarily conscious of the fact that Four-Oh is a big one.

BD:   I’m probably making a much bigger deal out of it than you will.  [At WNIB, I used the gimmick of presenting programs on round birthdays.  This way, the material was aired regularly in a manner which was gender-blind and color-blind.]

Yeh:   I don’t know...  I suppose if I think about it enough, I could make a big deal about it.

BD:   You’re probably too busy to do that.

Yeh:   [Laughs]  That’s probably right.  I’m very busy with a lot of different things.

BD:   One last question.  Is playing the clarinet fun?

Yeh:   Many times it is very fun, and sometimes it could be more fun.

BD:   What could be done to make it more fun?

Yeh:   It’s a very, very difficult instrument to play well.  It’s got lots of idiosyncrasies acoustically that make it possible to play unmusically, and even anti-musically.  The clarinet, unfortunately, has many tendencies that players promote or elevate to a very, very high level of importance, which are completely unmusical or anti-musical.  For example, starting a tone from nothing is placed at a very high premium amongst many clarinet players, and natural sounds very, very rarely start from nothing.

BD:   It usually starts with an almost percussive kind of explosion.

Yeh:   Absolutely correct!  There’s always a definition of a beginning of a sound.  I always liken this to playing a tape backwards, where you hear the decay of the sounds which start from nothing, and then [makes a vipping sound].  Clarinetists seem to think it’s a virtue to start from nothing and crescendo into a big sound.

BD:   Starting from nothing should be just one of the little tricks in your bag?

Yeh:   Yes, a very little trick.  An oboe player will lament the fact that he can’t start very, very softly on a low note.  If a composer writes it, then we can do it, and if he knows that a clarinetist can do it, then he may put in there simply for that reason.  But if the clarinetist thinks with a vocal concept, he or she will have a much, much better chance of success of playing the instrument musically.  I strongly believe that one has to overcome certain phenomena and tendencies on our instrument to be able to play it musically.  It’s a difficult instrument to play musically.

BD:   Have you solved all the problems of the clarinet?

Yeh:   Almost, and if I haven’t solved them, I know they’re there to solve.  [Much laughter]  In my thirty-four years of playing the instrument, I’ve come across problems, and I’ve solved many of them, and I know other ones are constantly there to be solved.

BD:   Are there new problems being created by new composers?

Yeh:   Yes, often there are.

BD:   Do you revel in them or do you lament them?

Yeh:   It really depends.  Speaking very generally, sometimes I revel in them because the solutions are so exhilarating, and sometimes I lament them, because to solve them wouldn’t necessarily bring satisfaction if the music itself may not have as much of a point to it as it should.

BD:   Thank you for all the music that has come out your system through your clarinet.

Yeh:   Thank you for listening.  I appreciate it.




To read some details about the Ebony Concerto, including a photo of
Stravinsky rehearsing it for the premiere, see my inteviews with Paul Freeman.

© 1987 & 1996 Bruce Duffie

The first conversation was recorded at the home of John Bruce Yeh in suburban Chicago on July 9, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later.  The second conversation was recorded at Bruce Duffies home studio on May 14, 1996, and portions were aired the following year.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.