Yang Xuefei: classical guitarist
World-renowned classical guitarist Yang Xuefei to perform in Kuala Lumpur.
IF you’re not sure which musical instrument your child should pick up, perhaps you might be inspired by music prodigy Yang Xuefei. Yang, who hails from Beijing, is acclaimed as one of the world’s finest classical guitarists.
Born following the Cultural Revolution, an era when Western music and instruments were banned, Yang paved the way for the classical guitar in China. She was the first ever Chinese guitarist to enter a music school and launch an international professional career.
She will be playing in Malaysia for the first time at the KL Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) on Nov 23 as part of the Bel Canto Concert and Seminar Series 2010 organised by the Classical Music Society.
Yang gave her first public appearance at the age of 10 at the China International Guitar Festival and the Spanish Ambassador in China was so impressed that he presented her with a concert guitar.
Then, when playing in Tokyo, she was given a special award by the Guitar Alliance of Japan and the celebrated Japanese luthier Masaru Kohno presented her with one of his concert guitars.
Composer Joaquín Rodrigo attended her debut concert in Madrid when she was 14.
In 1995, world-renowned American composer John Williams gave two of his own Smallman guitars to her Conservatory after he heard her play in Beijing.
She made no small impact in the classical music area as after graduating from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing with a degree, she garnered an international scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies at The Royal Academy of Music in London.
She received a Recital Diploma, the highest performance award conferred by the Royal Academy. She also won the Dorothy Grinstead Prize and received the Principal’s Prize for exceptional allround work.
Yang has remained in Britain since, embarking on a professional career that sees her keeping a busy international schedule, performing at prestigious venues like Wigmore Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Philharmonie Berlin, Lincoln Center New York, and other international venues throughout the world. She is also regularly invited to perform concertos with leading orchestras.
Yang has also appeared in a number of radio and television programmes, including a performance at the 2008 Classical Brits on ITV1, BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, BBC Proms and China Central Television, which made a special biographical documentary on her for their classical musician series.
Offstage, Yang is often actively expanding her guitar repertoire with her own arrangements of pieces (often adding Chinese music to the range) and collaborations with composers, in particular a close collaboration with British composer Stephen Goss.
She has an exclusive international recording contract with EMI Classics and her debut album Romance de Amor (released in April 2006) reached golddisc status in Hong Kong.
Her second album 40 Degrees North (April 2008), featuring music from Spain and her homeland China, reached No.2 in the instrumental and chamber music charts in Britain.
In an email interview, Yang, 33, shares her musical journey with StarTwo. When were you introduced to classical guitar?
I was seven years old. My parents wanted me to play a musical instrument and the music teacher at my school had just started a guitar group, so I was put there without really knowing what it was.
The guitar chose me, rather than me choosing to play the guitar. However, from the beginning I really enjoyed playing it. If I had to choose all over again, I would still choose the guitar as I love its intimacy. What was the very first guitar that you owned and what is your current guitar of choice?
I don’t recall the brand, but it cost all of RMB20 (RM9.25). My dad bought it for me. I now have about a dozen guitars from around the world. For live performances, I usually play my Greg Smallman guitar from Australia. For recordings, I use a variety of instruments, depending on the music I am playing. As a world-class performer, what are some of the challenges that you encounter?
As a Chinese musician, I need a visa for most countries and that can sometimes be problematic because of the time needed to get the visas. Women are physically not as strong as men, so travelling can be particularly draining.
Another problem is that I need Asian food from time to time, no matter where I am in the world! It’s often hard to find nice Asian food in unfamiliar cities near the concert venue. What are some of your most memorable experiences?
Meeting Rodrigo and Williams for the first time! They are both my music heroes.
One of the funniest moments was during a music festival in Europe which advertised that I would be in a late night concert playing rock ‘n’ roll, dressed in black leather! (Not sure how that came about.) What is the toughest part about being a classical guitarist?
There is no tradition of classical guitar in China. I had many battles to fight to make a career as a guitarist. Many artistes succeed in their own country before making a name abroad but Chinese artistes who play Western instruments have to make a name for themselves in the West. That was a tough journey. I am very grateful to all my supporters in China, and generally, in Asia.
How many hours do you practise each day?
It depends. Ideally, it should be at least four hours. But travelling to concerts makes that hard to maintain. On the morning of a live performance, I like to go through the whole programme and practise the difficult bits. I also spend time in the venue on the afternoon of the concert to get used to the acoustic of the hall.
Do you miss playing in China? Do you ever think of going back to promote the classical guitar?
I make a point of playing in China each year, and other Asian countries, and am hoping to do more. I want to introduce this instrument to Asian audiences. I think it has the potential to interest young people in particular. What are your thoughts on receiving the awards?
These awards please me because they reflect the fact that people in Asia are enjoying my music. I am hoping my latest CD ( Rodrigo
Concerto), which I think is my best so far, will also be well received by Asian music lovers. Tell us more about your current project.
I recorded a concerto disc in July this year with the orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue. In addition to Rodrigo’s Aranjuez, EMI commissioned a new concerto for me based on Albeniz’s famous piano works. I also played a solo piece by each composer. For Albeniz, I transcribed one of his little known and rarely played suites ( Espana), which works beautifully on the guitar. For Rodrigo, I played his best solo work Invocacion
y danza, which I also played in my Madrid debut. Any future plans?
I hope to record some baroque repertoire. My playing is still evolving so I am curious to see where it will take me. I also have plans to play more often in Asia. What is your personal favourite piece of music?
I particularly like Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo and I love Evocacion by Albeniz, which is also the central movement of the Albeniz Concerto that I recorded. What kind of music do you listen to? What do you do to relax?
I listen to all sorts of music. I like listening to jazz to relax. For sports, I like badminton, but I don’t play too well. I like chatting with friends, daydreaming at home, or shopping. Who inspires you?
I don’t have any one person whom I take inspiration from. I find inspiration in many different ways – from people, from events, from the world around me. n Yang’s third CD Concierto de Aranjuez for EMI is recorded with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and features Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, and The Albeniz Concerto written for her by Stephen Goss. She will be giving a concert at the Bentley Music Auditorium, Mutiara Damansara, Selangor: An Evening In Spain at 8.30pm on Nov 22. There will be a classical guitar workshop and masterclass by Yang and concert: Classical GuitarSolo at KLPac, 8.30pm on Nov 23. Admission by donation. For details, email: email@example.com or call: 017889 3599, 012696 1764, 016203 4010. Website: classicalmusicsociety.com.my.
Strumming melodies: Yang Xuefei paved the way for the classical guitar in China. ‘The guitar chose me, rather than me choosing to play the guitar,’ she says. – Photo courtesy of Wai Tong Kwang