When Meng Su took the top prize in the Parkening International Guitar Competition in May 2015, it was a triumph in more ways than one. She became the first female guitarist to win the Gold Medal at this prestigious solo-guitar competition with the largest cash prize of any guitar contest ($30,000). But it was also a return to competitions after a nine-year hiatus. Su had won the Parkening Young Guitarist Competition in California , as well as adult competitions in Vienna, Tokyo, and Iserlohn, Germany. “I had won four international titles before moving to America, and it just felt like enough,” she says. After arriving in the US, she began focusing her energies on building a duo career with Yameng Wang as the Beijing Guitar Duo.
But the win was also big because Su had begun experiencing nerves onstage. “Before I turned 18, I never had stage fright in concerts or competitions,” she says. “After I came to Baltimore, my mental state changed. As a teenager, I could play fast and clean, but not up to my current standards because you could hear [her nervousness]. It was as if showing technique was the main point, instead of expressing music.”
Obviously, she managed her stage fright well enough to to win the 2015 Parkening. “I had to prepare mentally and physically to make sure that I’d give the best performances under tremendous pressure,” Su says. “One mistake in a competition could lead to elimination. But my mental state was different this time. In the finals I was very relaxed.”
The genesis of the Beijing Duo began in China. The paths of Su and Wang crossed early on. Both grew up in Qingdao, China, and studied with the same guitar teachers. “I had heard many good things about Yameng,” Su relates. “At 12, she won the Tokyo competition. She was older and more accomplished, and an inspiration to me. It was my childhood dream to play with her.”
The two began playing duets in 2003, often sharing the bill at concerts, playing some solos and some duos. “We still play some of the pieces from those early days, such as [Radamés Gnattali’s] Suite Retratos,” says Su. “I love that piece. Every time we play it, there is something new.”
Su began taking guitar lessons as a child in Qingdao. After two years of study, she won a children’s competition. “When I won, my mother wanted me to have a better education and started taking me to Beijing,” Su says. At nine, she began studying at the Beijing home of professor Chen Zhi, who had taught both Xuefei Yang and Yameng Wang. At 12, she continued with him at the Central Conservatory of Beijing, until age 18. The decision to commit to weekly studies in Beijing required a huge sacrifice for both young Su and her mother.
“We’d get on a train every Friday night,” the guitarist recalls. “It was 16 hours one way and we’d sleep until we got to Beijing the next morning. Then we would go right to my teacher’s house or the school. I’d have my lesson and then watch the lessons of the other children. Sometimes we would have group lessons. After that, we got back on the train and went back home. My mom was very dedicated.”
Around 1999, Manuel Barrueco heard Caprice, a CD Wang made at 16 for the GHA label. On his behalf, Barrueco’s wife, Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, sent a fax to Zhi asking if Wang would consider studying with Barrueco at the Peabody Institute. But Wang opted to stay in China for college. Around the time Su was graduating from high school and Wang was a first-year master’s student, they learned that Barrueco was to play a concert in Hong Kong. Professor Zhi, Su, and Wang went to Hong Kong for the concert, where Barrueco was also giving a master class. Wang and Su were accepted to play in it. After that, Zhi recommended that both guitarists go together to study with the maestro at Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland. They arrived there in 2006.
Barrueco’s mentoring has made a substantial impact on Su’s sound. “I didn’t think about the meaning of the actions for tone production until I cam to America,” she says. Su played only free stroke. “I just thought free stroke was better and never played using rest stroke. But when I had my first lesson with Mr. Barrueco, he asked if I played rest stroke. I thought, ‘Why would I?’ I felt I could get that sound with free stroke, but it was a totally different sound. Then I started working a lot on rest stroke.”
Barrueco also provided insights for improving musicality that Su felt she lacked. He instructed her to sing the lines as she played her pieces and not to make a display with technique. “He always says that if people can’t hear your technique, you are a success,” she says. “For example, if you play a difficult piece and people say afterward that you played musically, powerfully, and that it was exciting, that’s better than hearing that your technique is amazing or that you can play very fast. We work hard for the technique not to be heard.”
In 2009, Barrueco encouraged Su and Wang to pursue their duo as a professional enterprise. He connected them with Bill Capone’s Artist Management Group, the company that manages him. Capone signed the duo immediately after hearing their Carnegie Hall debut recital in 2010. Barrueco’s Tonar label had released their 2009 album Maracaipe, a Latin Grammy-nominated disc featuring all South American music composed or arranged by Sergio Assad. In 2011, Tonar issued the duo’s Bach to Tan Dun, which showcases works by Bach, Scarlatti, Tedesco, Granados, and Su and Wang’s countryman, Tan Dun. Barrueco joined them on China West, a 2014 outing that includes music by Bach, Torroba, Piazzolla, Assad, and Chinese female composer Chen Yi in trio, duo, and solo settings.
Beijing Guitar Duo Plays “Eight Memories in Watercolor” (excerpts) by Tan Dun
As for the future, Su will continue down all avenues in her career with the duo, the trio with Barrueco, and as a soloist. “I want to keep everything going,” she says. “The duo is for the long term and solo playing is something I’ve just started working at again. Winning the Parkening Competition was a very good way to tell people that I am serious about solo playing.”
In August, Su gave a solo recital and master class in Denmark at the Copenhagen Guitar Festival. She says she will use her winnings to make a solo recording. During the fall, the Beijing Duo gave several performances of Rodrigo’s highly virtuosic Concierto Madrigal, in addition to recitals and master classes. So it’s full steam ahead for Meng Su: “I am very dedicated to the guitar,” she says. “I just want to play better and play more.”