Classical guitarist Yang Xuefei returning to Hong Kong for concert

Globe-trotting Chinese musician transcends language barriers by communicating through her music

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 6:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 6:22am

Classical guitarist Yang Xuefei has lived in London since 2000, but spends much of her life on the road between concert engagements. Today, she's in Boston, straight off the plane from London, and has just checked into her hotel in time for this interview. In Hong Kong, it's noon; there, it's midnight.

"I still love travelling, although it can be tiring," says Yang, 38. "Mostly it's the jetlag, but I've been to more than 50 countries, and I see so many different ways of living. It helps keep your mind open.

"And of course, being a musician, the ultimately rewarding thing is to communicate with people. It fascinates me going to different places where I don't speak the language or know the culture, but find that through the music we can understand and communicate with each other."

Despite the international itinerary, Yang still plays regularly in China, where she was born and brought up, and this year is the artistic head of the Changsha International Guitar Festival.

She has a loyal following in Hong Kong, where she last performed in 2012 at City Hall. She will be back in October, again at City Hall, sharing the same stage with English tenor and renowned lieder interpreter Ian Bostridge. It will be Bostridge's Hong Kong debut and Yang, who has collaborated with him before, is looking forward to the concert.

"I'm playing a few solo pieces, including some De Falla and Debussy from my CD, and then with Ian Bostridge we are performing Dowland, Schubert and Britten together. Britten wrote a song cycle Songs From The Chinese, so that's particularly appropriate to perform in China," she says.

Bostridge recorded that cycle in a 2013 CD called Britten Songs, with Yang accompanying him. Her new CD, Heartstrings, released this month, is the first she has made under a new major label deal with Universal Music Group's Decca.

A collection of unaccompanied solo performances, it is a departure in many ways from her previous releases, the most recent of which was a 2012 collection of her own arrangements of Bach concertos, recorded with the Elias String Quartet and released by EMI Classics.

EMI also put together a 2013 compilation of her recordings for them, called Sojourn, which included popular classical guitar favourites such as Stanley Myers' Cavatina and the Adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, as well as her arrangements of Butterfly Lovers and Plum Blossoms In The Snow.

That album reached number three in the HMV Hong Kong Classical Music Chart. Heartstrings, however, went straight to the top spot.

"My previous CDs have been concertos and chamber music, and the guitar has a big solo repertoire, so I thought it's time to do a solo CD. I thought about what to record and wrote down a list of pieces I love which I haven't recorded, and wanted to, and it turned out quite a mixture," she says.

"I selected a lot of short pieces and started searching for a theme and then realised that the mixture was the theme. All of these pieces have pulled at my heartstrings, so I thought that would be a good title. The guitar has six strings and I always think the most rewarding thing about playing it is I can touch people's hearts, so that's the story." The selection included works by Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, Modest Mussorgsky and Astor Piazzolla. She also recorded a rare original composition by her friend and "guitar hero" John Williams called From A Bird.

Williams recognised her talent early when he heard her in 1995 at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music, and left one of his guitars with the faculty, primarily for her to play.

She is pleased with the whole album, but particularly with her arrangement of a traditional Chinese piece, The Fisherman's Song at Eventide.

"I'm particularly proud of that piece," says Yang.

I don't think I'll be Beethoven, but composing is something I would like to try
Yang Xuefei

"It took me a long time, about two months, to figure out how to play it on the guitar, because I have only six strings and that was for a 13-string zither - the gu zheng. In the end I figured out a way to play it on the guitar, and I'm quite pleased with it."

She has played Chinese music alongside the Western classical guitar repertoire from the beginning of her performing career, and takes the process of transcribing it seriously.

"I need to do more. I like to do transcription because I have to research the original score, I have to research the background and try out a lot of things. So when I have finished the transcription I know the piece so well that I know the reason for every note," she says.

Most Chinese music, she adds, "is not that harmonised", which makes it relatively simple to play the tunes. But she wants to transform the music as well as transcribe it.

"I believe you shouldn't just move the piece to your instrument and play every note. You have to maintain the original character, but also add some of the colour of your own instrument. Otherwise why would people bother to come to listen to your version when they can hear the original?"

Being Chinese, Yang adds, she has an affinity with the genre: "At my level of playing, I know my instrument very well, so I feel I'm the most appropriate person to transcribe Chinese music for the guitar."

She is also a role model for the young Chinese guitarists who have come after her. She is the first professional classical guitarist from China, and her success has inspired others to take up the instrument.

"When I was learning there wasn't anybody who did classical guitar as a career or profession," Yang recalls.

"I didn't have anyone to take as an idol. Now there are young musicians who see me as a role model and that's a privilege." When she started learning the guitar in the 1980s, China was opening up "but not yet so much" and classical guitar didn't have a tradition at all.

"It wasn't very often you could hear a classical guitar concert. Now you can find anything you want online."

Yang was fortunate that her school music teacher was among the few guitar enthusiasts in the country, and suggested to her parents that it might be a more suitable choice than the instrument they originally had in mind for their daughter - the accordion. Parisian bistro background music's loss was the concert hall's gain. Today, Yang takes her responsibility for helping young would-be musicians seriously.

"I think in China, not just for the guitar but for every instrument, there are many talented young players. When I go to China I do masterclasses, workshops and so on, and with Universal's collaboration I am hoping to do more to promote my instrument in my own country," she says.

The success of Heartstrings will help. Her other plans include turning to composition, for which her transcription studies, which have included Bach and other composers from the Western classical tradition as well as Asian music, have prepared her well.

"I haven't composed music but it is my plan. At the same time composing is a totally different job to performing. I don't think I will be Beethoven, but it is something I would like to try," she says.

Fortunately, she plans to continue travelling between the concert halls of the world. Given the success of Heartstrings, in October she and Ian Bostridge will probably be playing to a packed house.