By Thérèse Wassily Saba
When Xuefei Yang first came to London to study with Michael Lewin at the Royal Academy of Music, one had a sense of the struggle she’d had just to reach that point. But Yang continued to flourish, and she is now well-established as an international soloist and chamber musician. To give some idea of her brilliant career, in July 2019 we finalized this interview in between her performances in London and at the 75th Cheltenham Music Festival (in Britain) and, even more impressive, in the following week, she headed to Paris for France’s Bastille Day celebrations, where she performed in an open-air classical music concert to an audience of many thousands at the base of the Eiffel Tower: She was the soloist in the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo, with the Orchestre nacional de France, conducted by Jaap Van Zweden; the concert ended with spectacular fireworks. Within a few days, she was traveling to Changsha in her native China, where she is the artistic director of the Changsha Guitar Festival.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: You have had such an internationally successful career that it is hard to imagine the struggle you must have had at the start of your life as a guitarist. What I still find incredible is that you were the first Chinese guitarist to enter a conservatory to study the instrument. Do you still think about those early challenges?
XUEFEI YANG: Yes, indeed, I always remind myself of the long path I have traveled and the various difficulties along the way. I try to take positive things from it all—it reminds me to cherish the privilege I’m having as a musician living my dream, and it reminds me of the strength I have gained from the various struggles, both as a musician and as a person. People sometimes call me a pioneer, but I didn’t think about this at all when I was in China and started to think about guitar as a path in life. After traveling to many countries and seeing many different cultures and ways of life, I realize now that I had chosen a rare and uncertain path with no guarantee of a future. I feel very fortunate that I am able to live this musical life. Some young musicians in China tell me that I am their role model, so hearing this is also my reward for having taken a pioneering path.
CG: You started out studying in China, during the pre-reform period, then came to the Royal Academy of Music in London, and since then you have become an integral part of the classical music scene here in England. You have made England your home, but you have never stopped performing in China.
XUEFEI: I have continued to perform in China throughout my career and I feel it’s important that I bring the guitar and its music to my homeland. I feel it’s not only my responsibility, but also a privilege. While the guitar is appreciated by the core guitar audience in China, I want to continue to bring it to a more mainstream musical audience, as well. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to do this by having invitations to appear at China’s prestigious venues and major music festivals, and by performing with the top Chinese orchestras. Most recently, such an event was the Chinese New Year concert at the National Centre of Performing Arts [NCPA], which showcased top-quality musicians from all fields. I will continue to work to bring the guitar and its music to the mainstream musical world in China, as well as the core guitar audience.
CG: This October there are important celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Can you tell us about the special anniversary plans that you have organized?
XUEFEI: In previous years, I have played Chinese pieces here and there in my concerts and recordings. I find that Western audiences can find it challenging to listen to a lot of Chinese music all at one go, because it’s not really related to their cultural background and they are not familiar with the music language. However, that makes me feel that I need to continue to work to build an appreciation of the music from my cultural heritage.
I find cultural knowledge of all forms really helps in interpreting music. I have lived for many years in the West and continue to develop a deeper understanding of Western cultures. Paradoxically, this has made me feel an urge to explore and understand my own heritage even further. I think it helps to look at your own culture from the outside—it’s hard to see sometimes when you don’t have another perspective to compare against.
When I was a teenager, I was focused on playing big pieces perfectly to prove my ability, and I made music mainly by feeling. Then I realized that playing by feeling wasn’t enough and I felt some confusion about where I was heading as a musician. Coming to London and studying with Michael Lewin at the Royal Academy opened my eyes and ears and helped shape my musicianship. After 30, I feel I started to find my own voice, with more musical freedom, but based on a better overall understanding of music. I realized more and more that we are not just making music, but communicating within a cultural context.
This year—the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China—is an important occasion in China and will be widely celebrated across the country. It provides a great reason for me to do more to present some Chinese music and culture as part of my recitals. I’ve done three things in particular this year: I have given a bigger proportion of my concert programs to Chinese repertoire; I have been working a lot on new transcriptions, including classics, folk, and chamber pieces; and I am also recording a whole album of Chinese music, which will be released by Universal early in 2020, alongside concerts including one at China’s most prestigious venue, NCPA.
CG: You are really in a unique position to discuss the developments in classical music over the past decade or so in China. Can you tell us a little bit about the changes you have observed?
XUEFEI: The classical music scene in China has changed beyond recognition in all aspects these last 20 years. Before, the role of conservatories in China was primarily the vocational training of musicians for orchestras, teaching, etc. Basically, the government funded university faculties and then allocated jobs to graduates. When I was starting out, this system was changing, but the future looked quite bleak. Against my parents’ wishes, I withdrew from a top school in Beijing which guarantees a better chance for entering a top university probably followed by a good job afterwards, and entered the middle school attached to the Central Conservatoire of Music in Beijing as an unofficial student. That meant my parents had to pay more money for me to study there and there would be no formal qualification at the end of it. Fortunately, the faculty was formally established during my time there and I got a formal qualification at the end of it! I was the very first student to major in guitar at a Chinese music school. Nowadays there are probably a dozen conservatories across China with a guitar faculty and I see many guitar graduates making a decent living by teaching, organizing music schools, or owning music shops. Many of them often reinvest some of their profits back into guitar events.
When I started, the classical guitar was basically unknown by the public. The guitar had a negative image. It was mainly associated with Western pop music, which in turn was associated with the capitalist West, and hence was seen as a bad thing during that early reformation era in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. The general public didn’t realize that the classical variety of guitar even existed. Nowadays, Western pop culture is accepted, and its image has become normalized, so the guitar is accepted. By the creation of formal guitar faculties at conservatories, people see that the instrument has the government’s stamp of approval, so more people study it, and they go on to teach; there are more concerts at different levels, and hence classical guitar is becoming more and more recognized by the general public.
Even more generally, classical music is booming. I think this is due to two main reasons: the country is more open to the West; and the economic growth of the country allows cities to develop and people to follow aspirational lifestyles. Openness to the West brings more opportunities for cultural exchange. Classical music is strongly associated with a high-status lifestyle, and with the money available from economic growth, many cities are now investing in spectacular venues for concerts—it gives the city a good image and status—sometimes just to compete with other cities! China’s most prestigious venue is the spectacular NCPA in Beijing. I played the very first guitar recital in that venue in 2009 shortly after it opened. The big cities already have mature musical audiences, while some of the smaller cities have all the facilities but haven’t yet formed an audience with a tradition of listening to classical music. I believe these audiences will develop over time, as most people aspire to better their lives, and it is human nature to want nourishment for the soul once basic needs are met. I am hoping that more and more children and parents will realize that the goal of learning an instrument is to have music enrich their lives.
CG: Yes, that is so important! Alongside those developments in China, equally, there have been many changes in the classical music scene and classical guitar scene throughout the world. This is also something you have witnessed first-hand. Could you describe some of the changes you have observed outside of China and how they have affected your career?
XUEFEI: I have heard British people say that the guitar scene was a lot richer in the UK 20 years ago than today, and that the guitar scene in the USA is now better than the UK. And I’ve heard many Americans say that the European guitar scene is richer than in the USA. I think everyone has a different perspective on this question.
I’ll share some of my own observations from touring around the world. First, the general level of playing has definitely improved. Also, the art of lutherie seems to be in a very exploratory era, which in my view goes hand-in-hand with the more diverse repertoire available to modern players. I also feel that a global repertoire has become more acceptable. It seems that traditionally, concerts probably included a lot of Western classical music—transcriptions of the classical greats, for example. Nowadays, we also have a wealth of music for string instruments from across the world. I think it’s a good sign that we are embracing the music of many cultures. In the same way that John Williams brought the music of Barrios to a wider audience, I want to bring music from China into the guitar repertoire. China has a long heritage of music for plucked instruments that is fascinating to explore on guitar.
I think that the guitar is more accepted in the general music scene, but I also think it deserves even higher recognition. There are lots of music festivals and events across the globe; it would be nice to see the guitar at even more of them.
CG: Being the artistic director of the Changsha Festival will give you a chance to put some of your dreams into practice.
XUEFEI: The Changsha Festival is now in its eighth year and I have been involved as artistic director for the past five years. My main interest in this festival is the opportunity it provides for young people to see, to learn, and to participate in music making. Also, I want to present good-quality guitar concerts in various styles to the public.
For the many young guitarists who come from all over the country, this festival is probably one of the only times they get to experience live music from international artists. The main focus of the festival is on classical guitar, but I want to open their eyes to the wider world of guitar in all its forms. For this reason, we invite top performers of all styles. We have presented flamenco, fingerstyle, lute, and Baroque guitar, among others. I also always include chamber concerts to showcase guitar in a setting with other musicians. I want audiences to get a very wide view of the guitar in the world of music, so that young players may be able to choose a musical path that they were oblivious to before. You never know how these young musicians will be inspired by things they haven’t heard or thought of before.
In order to discover promising players and provide performing opportunities, we also have a classical guitar competition with prizes for different age groups. The open competition has the biggest prize in Asia—$10,000, plus a multi-concert tour in China and a Naxos recording. I also want the festival to encourage composers to write for our instrument, and we have an annual composition competition for that purpose.
The festival has a great atmosphere—lots of foreign artists have told me that their experiences were a lot better than their expectations, and I would encourage interested guitarists from across the world to come to our festival and experience it first hand; you will be made very welcome. I remember that we were fortunate to have Roland Dyens perform at the 2015 festival—I will always remember how touched he was by the warmth of the welcome he received from the Chinese audience. He told me he wished to return soon…
CG: I am not surprised to hear that you are including chamber music in the Changsha Festival, because that is an important part of your own career. You have had long-term collaborations with particular musicians, such as the tenor Ian Bostridge and the Heath Quartet. You made one of my favorite recordings of the Bach concertos with the Heath Quartet (EMI Classics, 2012).
XUEFEI: I feel that performing with other musicians is an important and enjoyable part of my musical life. On a personal level, I learn so much that I can bring to my own music making. For me, the human voice is the ultimate expression of musical phrasing, so working with singers always inspires me to think about musical lines, phrasing, and how to express my own music. Playing with a string quartet you learn the art of making music as a team, and really experience what chamber music is about. It’s not about the individual, and sometimes you have to stand back and support others in the musical soundscape. Playing concertos with an orchestra provides the ultimate sense of voicing, dynamics, and colors. Performing with other musicians is also a great way to bring the guitar into a wider musical world. I have also worked with dancers recently and find it really enhances one’s sense of rhythm and pulse.
I have been very fortunate to have worked with a wide variety of artists. My very first experience of working with a singer was with the wonderful Rosalind Plowright. A singer friend of mine told me that in their world that would be like landing a leading part in a Wagner opera as a first operatic role! Next year, I am planning to perform a Schubert song cycle, something I always wanted to do, with Gavan Ring. Last year, I did a few concerts with the South Korean soprano Sumi Jo, and I’ve just recorded an EP with American soprano Ailyn Pérez for Apple Music.
In addition to recording and performing with the Elias Quartet, I also regularly collaborate with the Heath Quartet and others. I truly enjoy my musical collaborations and always learn something from them. Perhaps you’ll be able to hear some of these influences reflected in my solo playing, too, on a new solo EP that I’ve also recorded for Apple Music.
CG: Another of your regular collaborators is the tenor Ian Bostridge. Could we talk about the recent recording you two made in the Globe Theatre’s series? It was called Song from our Ancestors (Globe Records, 2016) and you recorded it in the beautiful Jacobean theater.
XUEFEI: Making that recording was a very special experience because the venue is a re-creation of an intimate 17th century theatre from Shakespeare’s time—all made from wood and beautifully decorated. I have enjoyed performing there previously and was delighted when the chance to record there came along. Making the recording felt like giving a real performance, rather than playing in an anonymous soundproof studio. The sound is very clean, and the notes have a beautiful bloom. Ian and I provided an initial draft of recording repertoire based on material that we had toured, including a song cycle that Steve Goss wrote for us. The producer asked me to include an equal amount of music from my own cultural background. I was very happy to have this opportunity to arrange more Chinese music, which we included as interludes, and also a solo piece that Chen Yi wrote for me. She is one of most prominent contemporary Chinese composers. I have been lucky to have had artistic freedom for recording with all the labels I have worked with.
CG: More recently, you have released another super-special recording called Milonga del Angel: Virtuosic Duo for Guitar and Violin with the Chinese violinist Mengla Huang on the Deutsche Grammophon label. How did that collaboration come about, and how did you choose the repertoire?
XUEFEI: A few years back, Mengla and I performed a duet concert together at the NCPA in Beijing. He loves classical guitar and wanted to do an album with guitar, so he asked me if I would be interested to join him on that project. I love playing with other artists, especially with someone who loves the sound of guitar—I feel there are still musicians out there who ignore our instrument. As Mengla won the Paganini violin competition, it was natural for us to include some of the Paganini works for violin and guitar.
He was also very open-minded about my suggestions for repertoire. The danger with some guitar-and-violin repertoire is that the guitar parts aren’t always that interesting musically. So, we endeavored to include repertoire where there was some musical balance between the violin and guitar. After hearing the violin line, I sometimes had to arrange my own guitar part. For example, Falla’s Spanish Dance is a piece I know well—I have performed it with legendary Chinese cellist Jian Wang, and also recorded a solo version of my own arrangement. After rehearsing this piece with Mengla for this recording, I realized [famed Austrian violinist and composer Fritz] Kreisler’s violin transcription had made the violin sound so virtuosic, I felt I had to re-arrange my guitar part to match! We used that as the opening track of the album. I also did my own arrangement of the guitar part for Albéniz’s Tango, again to better pair with Kreisler’s violin transcription. The repertoire takes us on a musical journey from the “devil” of Paganini to the “angels” of Piazzolla. We will be doing a Christmas Day concert together in Shanghai.
CG: Finally, could we talk about the special guitars in your life? You were given a Smallman guitar by John Williams early in your career, which was important for you. Then Paul Fischer has made you some special instruments to your own specifications.
XUEFEI: When I was working on the Bach transcriptions for my Bach Concertos CD , I bought a second-hand 7-string guitar that happened to be made by Paul Fischer. I immediately liked the sound of that guitar in the shop. I took it to Paul to adjust the string spacing for me and add some additional frets. He told me he was experimenting with some new double-top designs. At that time, I was looking for a spruce guitar with a different sound from my Smallman. I also wanted it to have a shorter scale-length, because when I was working on my Bach album, I felt those transcriptions were very demanding on the left hand, so I thought a shorter scale would ease that a bit and let me focus more on the music. A few months later, I passed by Paul’s studio on the way to Oxford and tried his new guitar—it matched all the criteria I was looking for. It has a very focused yet silky tone.
I have used both instruments on my recordings and in a few concerts, too. Paul also made another unique guitar that I played on the Aubade video—you can also see the instrument being made on that video!
CG: Are there other new guitars in your life? Any by Chinese makers?
XUEFEI: I also have two guitars made by the luthier and guitar-case maker Narongsak Visesnut. Regarding Chinese-made guitars, I have one by Tribute, a Chinese brand I trust that makes a small volume of high-quality but low-cost guitars.
CG: And for those interested in visiting the Changsha Festival?
XUEFEI: We are making some changes to the competitions, so for anyone interested, do keep an eye on the websites at guitar.org.cn and xuefeiyang.com.