Guitarists give Chinese music unexpected treatment

Updated: 2013-03-14 11:25

By Hu Haidan in New York (China Daily)

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 Guitarists give Chinese music unexpected treatment

The Beijing Guitar Duo - Su Meng and WangYameng - are joined by their former teacher Manuel Barrueco and Chinese composer Tan Dun before its New York concert. [Photo provided for China Daily]

When 5-year-old Su Meng met Wang Yameng, 11, in their hometown in eastern China, the thought of performing together one day in the United States would have seemed unlikely at best.

Twenty years later, the young guitarists from Qingdao played New York City.

Su and Wang, who bill themselves as the Beijing Guitar Duo, strummed solos and duets and performed as a trio with Cuban guitar virtuoso Manuel Barrueco, who teaches at John Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory.

Barrueco, who has taught Su and Wang since they first came to the US in 2006, praised their concert last Saturday at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y.

"Both Meng and Yameng are at the top of my list of guitarists I enjoy listening to," he said. "They are deeply musical and have technique to spare. They say beautiful things with their music and they are very dedicated to their art."

By the end of the concert, the pair had left its mark on the audience, prompting a standing ovation.

A highlight was Eight Memories in Watercolor, a piece written by Tan Dun that Barrueco arranged for his two guitar proteges.

Pedro Cruz, who works as an analyst in Brooklyn and plays classic guitar, said he was impressed by that performance. "I am not used to hearing Chinese music on classical guitar, but this arrangement was very good."

Wang recalled a prior trip to New York with Su and Barrueco to show Tan the arrangement and play Eight Memories in Watercolor for him. The Academy Award-winning composer was pleased.

"Tan Dun said before listening to our performance that he could hardly have imagined that Chinese songs and guitar could be a perfect match," Wang said.

Encouraged by the response to that piece, Su said she and Wang want to play more Chinese music on their chosen instrument.

"It's not a surprise for audience to hear a Chinese song through many Western instruments nowadays, like piano, violin and flute," the younger of the duo said. "We hope we can link Chinese culture and music through guitar-playing."

Barrueco has backed that ambition with other arrangements of Chinese works.

"I felt that the Beijing Guitar Duo should incorporate some Chinese music into their programming and introduce Chinese music to their guitar audience," he said.

The duo and its teacher-turned-collaborator are busy assembling material for a CD that they plan to release in 2014, Barrueco added.

Su and Wang said they're grateful to have studied with the master guitarist, who taught them to focus more on the music than on their technique.

"Barrueco always told us to remember our roots. That's important for musicians," Su said.

Under Barrueco's guidance, the Beijing Guitar Duo has won numerous international competitions and toured the US, Europe and Asia. Su and Wang's diverse repertoire includes works by 18th-century Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti and Brazilian Samba, among other styles.

Su and Wang were born and raised in Qingdao, a city in Shandong province on China's east coast. Su remembers vividly how they met.

After winning the top prize at the Tokyo International Guitar Competition in 1993, the 11-year-old Wang visited her first guitar teacher in Qingdao. One of his students at the time was 5-year-old Su.

Wang's talent had by then enabled her to study at Beijing's Central Conservatory, so the possibility of ever playing together seemed remote.

"I never imagined at the time that we would ever play as a duo," Su said.

But when Su also became a young enrollee of the conservatory - like Wang, to study guitar under the well-known Chen Zhi - the musical partnership took off.

By the time they met Barrueco in 2006 in Hong Kong, the two musicians had embarked on solo careers and won awards.

The two guitarists asked for an opportunity to play privately for Barrueco, who, after hearing them, invited Su and Wang to audition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. With that performance, the Beijing Guitar Duo was born, with Barrueco suggesting the name.

"Because of how beautiful their playing was, and also because of their deep understanding of each other musically and their long friendship, I encouraged them to establish a duo," he recalled.

For Su and Wang, playing together enriches their music. But although they would like to perform as a duo more often, they're not about to give up their solo careers.

"If they continue to work well together and develop their musicality as they have in past years," Barrueco said, "then I can only imagine that they will be recognized as one of the best guitar duos in the world."