Letter from China: ‘Boom!’ Goes the Classical Guitar
Guy Traviss Reports on Changsha’s Fourth Classical Guitar Festival
My arrival in China was not in the city of Changsha, but in Guangzhou, the country’s third largest city, located just 120 kilometers from the Hong Kong border. I was there to visit Martinez Musical Instruments, one of China’s largest manufacturers of guitars, and the principal sponsors of this year’s Changsha International Classical Guitar Festival. After a quick tour by founder Alex Wang, I was off on a high-speed train to Changsha in the company of other festival guests, including Swedish guitarist Johannes Moller and California luthier Kenny Hill.
Changsha is the capital of Hunan Province in south-central China, neatly positioned on a branch of the Yangtze River. It was the site of Mao Tse-tung’s conversion to Communism, and for this the city has a special significance. Today, it has over seven million inhabitants, a lot even by Chinese standards.
If you are visiting China, and you are a musician, the first thing you must know is that the country is in the middle of a classical-guitar boom. This is measurable not only by the number of players, but in the quality of the playing. The Chinese approach to performance is often criticized for emphasizing technique over musicality, but I believe this is now, or very soon will be, an outdated view.
Performers for the 2015 Changsha included Xuefei Yang (who was also there as artistic director), Johannes Moller, French composer/guitarist Roland Dyens, and American Jason Vieaux. Though Moller was at the end of his China tour and a returning performer to the country, Vieaux was on Chinese soil for the first time. My understanding was that Dyens’ experience was somewhere in between. Whatever relationship these individuals have with their Asian following, it was clear that in Changsha they were all on an equal footing: They all shared the identity of high-profile guitarist-outsiders. It was fascinating to see, as so often guitarists carry with them their own personal “brand,” one refined in Europe and America for a number of years.
Johannes Moller poses with a fan.
So what about the practical considerations of visiting Changsha, perhaps for a future festival? Bear in mind the temperature averages 25–33 degrees Celsius (that’s 77–91 Fahrenheit) in August, with killer humidity (and spice in the food!). Obviously, English is not as widely adopted in Asia as it is in Europe and elsewhere in the world, though this shouldn’t be seen as a hindrance. The festival organization did a fantastic job of ensuring foreign guests were well looked after. My advice would be: Embrace the difference. The clearly defined cultural barrier allows foreign musicians to get a fresh view of the music they play. Many of the Chinese participants I spoke with (via translator) were completely divorced from the cultural context in which much of the music they play was actually written. Though this can create all sorts of problems, it also promotes an entirely unique approach to the repertoire we are so used to hearing.
As for the performances, Moller was due to play what would be the final concert of his China tour. In the previous month, he had performed in 13 different cities. During that time, a film crew had documented his every move, and some of that footage was shown onscreen moments before he gave his farewell concert. This set an expectant tone for his time on the platform, and in return Moller delivered a memorable program. The standout piece was a set of variations called Five Chinese Impressions, which were enthusiastically received from the first note.
Where competition is concerned, Changsha supports a number of different guitar events. Whether you are an advanced player (young professional) looking to enhance a CV, or a newbie looking to gain some competition experience, there is a category to suit you. Since returning from China and visiting other festivals, I am most frequently asked what the competition in Asia is like. I can usually guess straight away that they are fishing for stories of child prodigies and the like. No doubt Chinese guitar students are advanced, but I will have to disappoint when it comes to stories of young Segovias. And the senior category managed to attract a fair number of foreign participants this year, which is impressive when you consider how far away China is from most of the world’s classical-guitar centers.
Competitors warming up
So, back to the concert platform, where Jason Vieaux was about to give his China debut. It had been a while since I had last heard him play. Expectations become high when you haven’t heard a concert player in a long while; somehow you expect the time in between to result in some proportional amount of improvement. Unfair, yes, but entirely natural. I was particularly impressed then to find Vieaux’s playing not only as good as I had remembered, but that the intervening years had added something as well. I quickly recalled his attachment to the music of Pat Metheny, and other compositions that he was fond of playing. But it was his performances of music by Albéniz and other standards of the repertoire on this occasion that really stood out—a sign of a truly great concert.
If outward enthusiasm for classical guitar is to be found anywhere in China, it is in the post-concert madness that ensues when guest performers leave the safety of the green room and head out to meet their public. I have a great deal of experience when it comes to guitar festivals, and concerts in general, so believe me when I say that in very few places in the world can you find so much excitement over a classical-guitar player. Even factoring in the relative novelty of a visitor from as far away as the US or Europe, this still doesn’t account for the strong pull the classical guitar has in China. A very good example of this was the response exhibited for fellow countrywoman Xuefei Yang. Predictably, her concert was a sensation for the Chinese listeners, but it was the arrival of her new book of music that week that really caused a stir. In the days following her performance and master class, a press conference was held for its release. I think it was the first time I had seen people literally scrambling for a classical score.
Xuefei Yang masterclass
So far, I have highlighted many of the differences that exist between East and West at these events. However, it is important to also say that we are inexorably moving toward what we commonly call the Global Village. Largely the consequence of the Internet and consumer capitalism, the homogenization of world cultures is seen by many as an unacceptable consequence of this movement. But to watch a figure like Roland Dyens, the quintessential Parisian jazz improviser, step onto the platform in Changsha, seemed to deny the Global Village’s influence here. Dyens began his concert, as he begins all concerts, with an improvisation. Then came arrangements of tangos, then Django, all the things we have become so accustomed to him doing. But not to the Chinese. I can well imagine this concert as an example of what it might have been like to watch Dyens when he was a much younger man.
In conclusion, the lineup in Changsha was fantastic. This should come as no surprise, since Xuefei Yang was responsible for programming the event. As a Chinese native living in London, she knows better than anyone what would work. I have no doubt that she will be able to deliver a similarly exciting set of events next year. If you are not already familiar with the scene (if it is even possible to be familiar with a scene on this scale), the Chinese community of guitar teachers and players is highly interesting. The economic boom of China may now be beginning to slow, but Chinese guitar shows no signs of faltering.