Yuan-Qing Yu believes in music's uncanny ability to mend broken bodies and spirits. Her fervent conviction is one of the reasons Chicago has a promising new instrumental chamber ensemble in its midst, just in time for the new year.
The group's name -- the Civitas Ensemble -- was inspired by a Latin word used in ancient Rome to denote citizenship and the responsibilities thereof. Yu, a violinist who founded the group along with string and woodwind colleagues from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, would like people to think of it as a civic-minded consort of musicians passionate about contributing to the community, especially to those in need and children suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
The Shanghai-born, U.S.-educated Yu, who has served as an assistant concertmaster of the CSO since 1996, admits much of her motivation was personal: Three years ago, her son Aaron, then 51/2, was diagnosed with leukemia. So devastated was she that for more than a year she stopped playing altogether. "I felt as if I was never going to recover (from the shock), even though the prognosis was good," she says today.
After her son began showing progress following a long and intensive series of chemotherapy treatments at Children's Memorial Hospital, "I started feeling a little hope in my life," Yu says. Then the thought hit her: What better way for her to express her gratitude to the hospital's doctors and nurses for helping to facilitate her son's recovery than through music?
For some years she and several of her fellow CSO members had considered starting up their own chamber ensemble. She realized there was no better time to do so than now. Her colleagues -- assistant principal cello Kenneth Olsen, violinist Kozue Funikoshi and clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, along with Chicago pianist Winston Choi -- agreed wholeheartedly. Each had his or her own story of a family member or loved one battling serious illness. Incorporation papers were drawn up and a board of directors was formed. Thus the Civitas Ensemble was born.
The group has already performed twice at Children's Memorial and has scheduled another visit for March 8.
"It was great to see parents who have gone through so much -- people who have it even worse than I have with my child -- sharing a few moments of joy and peace with their kids, the other patients and the staff," Yu says. "I walked out of the hospital feeling great, because we had done something really good."
As for Aaron, who will turn 9 this year, Yu says, "He's actually doing very well, and we are almost at the end of his treatment."
Plans for Civitas include performances as part of the CSO's Citizen Musician outreach initiative -- and, of course, further visits to Children's Memorial.
The Civitas Ensemble: Performs the winners' concert of the Chinese Fine Arts Society's composition competition March 16 in Fullerton Hall, Art Institute of Chicago; appears in the CSO Chamber Music Series May 5 in Buntrock Hall, Symphony Center; civitasensemble.org