Musician to premier rare Chinese guitar composition

Updated: 2013-11-30 07:37

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily USA)

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Xuefei Yang's guitar career started by accident.

"I always say that it was the guitar who chose me," the 36-year-old Beijing native said. "I was 7 and quite energetic, so my parents thought about making me learn an instrument to calm me down, so I could study better in school."

Originally the plan was to get Yang to play the accordion - a cheaper and portable version of the piano. Yang's music teacher said the accordion would be too heavy for her to handle and suggested joining her guitar group.

 Musician to premier rare Chinese guitar composition

Xuefei Yang says she became a guitarist by accident but now is very passionate about it. Provided to China Daily

"Guitar wasn't a popular thing in China at all, and my school was probably the only primary school in the entire country which had a guitar group," Yang told China Daily. "It was a coincidence [that I took up guitar] and now I look back, it's like a beautiful destiny."

On Dec 3, at 7:30 pm, Yang will perform a six-part program at Sub-Culture in New York, as part of the 92nd Street Y (92Y) "Art of Guitar" series. 92Y is a non-profit community and cultural center that connects people from the worlds of education, the arts, health and wellness, and Jewish life.

"I think for guitar, because the nature of the instrument is quite intimate, a smaller venue [like Sub-Culture] is more ideal," said Yang, who has performed in New York on two previous occasions at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. "For me, I'm equally happy to play in a large or small venue."

Yang's program spans through time and space with musical arrangements written between the 1600s and 2013, from Europe, South America and Asia.

The first half of the program features works that celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten, a Romantic piece by 19th-century Austrian composer Franz Shubert, and six songs by 19th-century Hungarian guitarist and composer Johann Kasper Mertz.

In the classical music world, guitar concertos are rare, and Britten wrote only one composition for solo guitar, Nocturnal a. er John Dowland, which is based on the theme of sleep and dreams. In the 92Y program notes, Yang said this piece is one of the most important works written for guitar. Yang also transcribed Britten's Courtly Dances from his opera Gloriana for solo guitar.

AQ er intermission, Yang will perform the US premiere of Shuo Chang, commissioned for her and arranged by the US-based Chinese composer Chen Yi. Finally, Yang has selected two masterworks from the 20th century guitar repertoire, including British composer William Walton's Five Bagatelles and Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera's Sonata, Op. 47.

"I knew about Chen Yi a long time ago. She is a very established Chinese composer, of the first generation of Chinese musicians who went abroad to study and succeed," Yang told China Daily. "I have commissioned work from Western composers, but I always wanted to commission work from Chinese composers."

Through Wigmore Hall in London, Yang finally found her opportunity.

Shuo Chang is based on a Chinese folk style of the same name, which translates as "speaking and singing," and typically incorporates drums to present a musical drama.

"Bagatelle" in music means a short, light piece, which Yang says is technically challenging to play. She also said Walton's Five Bagatelles convey a warmth of Italy, where the composer spent many years of his life.

Ginastera's sonata contains four movements that Yang says showcase and deconstruct the sounds, ambiance and rhythms of Argentina, and end in a frenzied and exciting finale to close the concert.

"I have always believed that the guitar is a very diversified instrument with a lot of possibilities, including in Chinese music because there are a lot of plucked instruments in China," Yang said. "Repertoire-wise, I have a lot to choose from the West, but not so much from the East, particularly China, but that's why I want to bring more music from Chinese composers."

Yang is already a musical pioneer. She was the first-ever guitarist in China to enter a music school, Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music, and the first guitarist to give a recital at the Beijing National Center of Performing Arts, and the first Chinese guitarist to venture on an international professional career.

Her debut album produced by the EMI Classics record label, Romance de Amor (2006), won a Golden Disc Award in Hong Kong, and her second, 40 Degrees North (2008), was selected as "Editor's Choice" by Gramophone magazine.

"I just always believe that guitar can have a better reception and a better position in the musical world, but to achieve that we need to have a bigger and better repertoire," said Yang, who now lives in the UK.

(China Daily USA 11/30/2013 page11)