BY BLAIR JACKSON (From the Winter 2015 Classical Guitar)
Xuefei Yang saved the best for last. Although the previous two hours of her concert at Oklahoma City University’s beautiful and acoustically sumptuous Petree Recital Hall had been faultless—an eclectic mélange of early masters (Dowland and Bach), classic choices (Rodrigo and Albéniz) and adventurous modern pieces (Brouwer, Goss, and Chen Yi)—it was her encore selection that seemed to resonate most strongly with the large crowd on that second night of the Guitar Foundation of America’s convocation in late June.
It was a short piece called The Fisherman’s Song at Eventide, a dreamy traditional Chinese folk song she had transcribed herself for solo guitar and had originally planned to play a little earlier in the second half of her concert. After an evening of so much serious and technically challenging music, the lilting sonority of Fisherman seemed to float and dance through the hushed hall, as it conjured images of the rural China of our collective imagination. In a sense, the piece felt like a natural choice for the best-known guitarist to emerge from China so far, yet it was actually quite a bold selection—after all, Yang’s musical education in her homeland was steeped in the same Western composers guitar students in Europe or the Americas would have studied, and for the past 15 years she’s been based in London.
“Everybody in China knows The Fisherman’s Song,” Yang had told me the previous afternoon, as we talked in an empty lounge off the lobby of the Oklahoma City hotel where she and other artists playing at the four-day GFA confab (including Pavel Steidl, Pablo Villegas, and others) were staying. “It’s normally played on a guzheng, which is this plucked [ table ] instrument with 13 strings and sounds a bit like a harp or a zither. The arpeggios [in the song] sound like water to me; so beautiful. It took me two months to figure out [how to arrange it for the guitar], but I’m proud of it.”
When Yang started playing at the age of seven, three decades ago, “classical guitar was not like violin and piano, which have a much longer tradition in China. Guitar is a new thing. Before I was born, during the Cultural Revolution [a period in Communist China during which the influence of Western culture was largely banned], guitar was regarded as a ‘hooligan instrument,’” she says with a smile.
She was the first guitarist in the country to enter a conservatory there: “It sounds nice, but there were a lot of barriers to conquer and we didn’t really have any Chinese repertoire to play; maybe a simple melody for beginners. But I really wanted to play something substantial [from China], and this concept actually became stronger for me after I went to England. In China, even now, the trendy things are Western things; Chinese folk music is not trendy. When I was younger in China, I was trying to play the big pieces, the typical things [by Western composers], but when I went to England and started a professional career, I asked myself, ‘What is my identity?’ I’m a Chinese artist. There are French artists and Russian artists and Spanish artists, and they have their own heritage to play—this big heritage of music, some of which I have learned. But I feel my culture is rich, too, and I want to do something that expresses my identity.”
The Fisherman’s Song at Eventide is just one of 19 short pieces on Yang’s appealing new CD, Heartstrings, and the only overt nod to her nationality; most of the rest are culled from many of the big names associated with the traditional and modern guitar repertoire (Falla, Barrios, Albéniz, Pujol, Llobet, Brouwer, Dyens, York), and a wide range of other classical composers (Debussy, Elgar, Schubert, Paganini, Mussorgsky). It covers an impressively broad range of styles and the emphasis is on more melodic, accessible pieces. The playing, needless to say, is impeccable—delicate on the ballads, technically flawless, and even dazzling in places. The recording, by engineer Arne Akselberg at Potton Hall in Suffolk, England in August 2014, is bright and full of life.
“I wanted to do an album that might get to a wider audience, with lighter and shorter pieces,” she explains. “I want it to appeal to somebody who is not just a classical-guitar player. If I record the Benjamin Britten piece I’m going to play tomorrow [Nocturnal After John Dowland], that’s going to appeal mainly to classical guitarists or classical-music lovers. But I want this CD to be more appealing to people even if they don’t listen to classical guitar or classical music.
“I want to do everything,” she continues. “I can play really serious, obviously, but I also like to do light things. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing lighter pieces. And there’s nothing wrong with being ‘commercial’ if the quality is good.”
Besides arranging The Fisherman, Yang also worked up her own solo-guitar transcriptions for several other songs on Heartstrings, including Manuel de Falla’s Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve, which she had previously played as duet with a cellist; Albéniz’s Torre Bermeja, which follows the composer’s piano score more closely than some guitar arrangements; and Edward Elgar’s lively Salut d’Amour, written originally for violin and piano—“I’ve never heard anyone play it as a solo piece,” she says.
“I like to do transcriptions,” she continues. “It’s one way to expand the repertoire of the guitar, which I want to do. Even if other guitarists have done [transcriptions] of some piece, I like to see what I can do with it. Like with the Bach violin concertos [recorded for her 2012 CD Bach Concertos, a collaboration with the Elias String Quartet], I spent a lot of time really studying the score and comparing different versions. When I do a transcription, I know every note and why I put this note here—why this octave and not a lower octave?—and why I kept this part this long. And you do your fingering accordingly. If you play other people’s transcriptions, they have their own idea, but if I want a brighter sound I will use more open strings, and if I want a darker sound I won’t have so many open strings. Especially playing Baroque music, there can be so many options for the fingering, but that’s part of the fun.”
In keeping with her desire to control as many aspects of her creative life as possible, Yang produced Heartstrings herself. “For a solo album I can do it,” she says, “but you need a good producer on a concerto recording—someone with a very good ear. In a way they’re like a conductor behind the scenes, keeping track of everything. When you go to a concert, it sounds fine, you don’t notice small things. But through the microphones you hear this instrument and that instrument don’t quite match, and maybe the sound of bassoon is not quite in tune, all sorts of things. When it’s just me, I know what I’m looking for and want to hear, and by now, too, I’ve done a lot of recording.
“When you record with an orchestra, of course, it’s different. For me, the hard part of concerto recording is I always want to really spend a lot of time with it—with solo recording I want to start at 10 a.m. and go to 10 p.m., no problem. But with an orchestra they have musician union rules. It seems like every 15 minutes they have a break, and no more than six sessions a day or something like that, so it’s a little harder to stay focused. The orchestra is like a big elephant,” she laughs.
“I treat live performance and recording as two different things,” she adds. “When I play for the microphone in studio it’s totally different from playing onstage. Sometimes in the studio [on this project] I’d listen back and hear maybe too much and think, ‘I need to hold back a little bit.’ “When I play a big venue, I’m often amplified and I think some of the nuances get lost. But in the recording studio, especially with these super-sensitive mics, you don’t need to worry so much about projecting, or about chair noises, or the audience coughing. So for me the recording is about details, and that’s what I focus on.
“Classical-guitar players spend much time in their rooms practicing and playing by themselves—and of course that’s important—but some of them don’t really know how to play out to an audience; they kind of play for themselves like they’re still in a small room. Intimate is good, but you have to play out for an audience. The studio is different and you need to find a balance.”
Having mastered almost every style of classical guitar you’d care to mention, created her own transcriptions, and also commissioned works by notable modern writers, the question naturally arises: Does she have any plans to compose, too?
“Composing is something I really want to try in the future,” she says without hesitation, “but at the same time, I know I’m not going to be Beethoven, or even Brouwer, whose work I admire so much. Right now, I feel I’m the most appropriate person to transcribe Chinese traditional music, because I know guitar so well and I know my culture so well. The other thing I can do is encourage Chinese composers to write for me. Before, I had Western composers write for me—Stephen Goss [who was at her GFA concert, where she played his Illustration to Book of Songs, written for Yang in 2014] and Domeniconi [I Ching]. Chen Yi was the first Chinese composer to write for me [“Shuo Chang,” also played at GFA]. I want to play more Chinese repertoire, but the truth is we need more of everything.”
This past summer, too, Yang agreed to be the artistic director of a guitar festival and competition in Changsha, China, [she still plays that role four years later—ed.] enticing fellow guitarists Jason Vieaux, Roland Dyens, and Johannes Moller, to join her as judges and players there. “For the competition, we used all new pieces by contemporary composers, because the new repertoire is very important. There are no recordings or videos of these pieces yet online, so they had to figure out how to play them. In China, so many guitarists are very good at copying pieces—they find recordings of pieces by Sor or Giuliani or other things from the traditional repertoire and they copy them very well, but that’s not a good way to learn music. So we found these new pieces they can’t copy,” she adds with a laugh. “I got involved to raise international awareness of classical guitar in China. That’s something that interests me and I want to do.”