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Meet China’s guitar heroine

YANG Xuefei doesn’t need vocal accompaniment when she performs. In her deft hands, the strings of her classical guitar say everything.

“Classical guitar can be very expressive in various music styles. It can demonstrate impressive rhythms, and it is also strong in cantabile music,” says Yang, referring to a playing style intended to mimic the human voice. “The word ‘classical,’ when referring to a guitar, just indicates features of the instrument and techniques; it should never be a limit on repertoire.”

Yang is considered a pioneer in China, becoming one of the country’s very first musicians to earn international acclaim on the classical guitar.

Today, she remains one of only a handful of Chinese playing the instrument professionally.

From her early teens, Yang has been widely praised for her impeccable technique and sensitive musicianship in repertory ranging from Albeniz to arrangements of Western pop and Asian music. Based in the UK, Yang was awarded a fellowship from the Royal Academy of Music in 2012 for her distinguished career to date.

Tonight, the young guitarist will play at the Shanghai Urban Lawn Music Plaza as part of the 2016 Music in the Summer Air (MISA), where she will present a selection of Brazilian guitar music and her own adaptation of Bach works. In part, the show is meant to demonstrate the possibilities of classical guitar.

“I hope that my performance will help those unfamiliar with classical guitar become interested and explore more of this amazing music world,” says Yang.

Born in the late 1970s in Beijing, Yang took up the guitar at the age of seven after failing to secure a spot in a popular accordion class. It was then that her lifelong partnership with the instrument began.

Yang still remembers her first guitar — her father paid 20 yuan (US$3) for it at the Beijing Department Store.

“I couldn’t wait to open the box and take my first pluck on the strings,” recalls Yang. “It sounded like a beautiful voice. I was in love with it at our very first encounter.”

Classical guitar, arguably a niche instrument even today, was even more of a rarity in the China of Yang’s childhood. Though Yang felt proud to play such a little-known instrument, it was not until she attended a class hosted by professional American guitarists at the age of nine that she realized that playing the guitar could be more than just a hobby.

“Seeing the musicians playing such beautiful music on stage, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to become,” says Yang.

Despite stiff opposition from her parents, 12-year-old Yang gave up the chance to attend a key secondary school in Beijing and applied instead for a school affiliated with Central Conservatory of Music. At the time, the school offered one of the very few pathways to becoming a professional musician in China.

Her performance debut in Madrid at the age of 14 won favorable comment from guitar greats like Joaquin Rodrigo. John Christopher Williams, another prominent figure in the field, gave his own instrument to the girl after listening to her performance at the age of 17.

“Even though I was praised by many masters, my parents were very worried about my future. It’s never easy to become a professional musician, and it would definitely be more difficult for a guitar player. After all, before my application, there wasn’t even a particular guitar major at the affiliated school or the conservatory,” she says.

Yet, Yang persisted.

“Obstacles can be effective touchstone to see whether you really like something or not. My answer was and still is affirmative,” says Yang. “I love music.”

Of course, passion alone couldn’t help Yang build a career in a musical field which barely existed in China. Searching for opportunities elsewhere, Yang furthered her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in the UK, where she won a full scholarship in 2002.

“Some people questioned why I chose Britain rather than Spain, the kingdom of the guitar. I was clear that I was looking to improve my music, rather than just playing the guitar,” says Yang. “London, as a significant center of world culture, would definitely be my choice.”

Apart from studying at the academy, Yang also pursued a career as a touring musician. Performing in more than 50 countries and regions over the past 13 years, Yang is aware how diverse cultures have affected the way she thinks and plays; yet she also feels an increasing desire to capture her own culture with the guitar after taking in so many great works from the West.

“When I was a little girl, I always felt proud about playing the great classic works. But along with my growth in music, I started to envy those who could present the music of their motherland,” says Yang.

Apart from cooperating with Chinese composers on works that draw from Chinese culture, Yang has also adapted mature Chinese works for the guitar. These include “Song of Homebound Fishman” and “Yi Dance,” two songs on her earlier albums.

“Expanding repertoire is always essential for particular music and instrument development. I am just making my limited contribution,” says Yang.

In her view, the best pieces to adapt are those which showcase the distinctive features of the classical guitar.

“I don’t think it a good idea to make the melodies completely different with my adaptation. Ideally, I hope audiences will immediately recall the melody they are familiar with, yet still appreciate the fresh, new interpretations,” says Yang.

Though widely recognized as the first-ever Chinese classical guitarist to launch an international professional career, Yang says she never set out to become an example for others.

“I just tried my best to become the best me, but it is pleasing if my success can help younger guitar players discover that their dreams are not illusionary,” says Yang.

Guitar, as Yang believes, is an accessible instrument suitable for most ordinary Chinese looking for musical exposure. “It is not that expensive to get a guitar, and you don’t need a big room to play it. In addition, it is not so technically demanding for beginners,” says Yang. She also urges new players to take in a wide variety of music as they hone their own playing skills.

Though being grateful for all the encouragement and knowledge from her teachers and great guitarists in master classes, Yang feels she’s benefited the most from cooperating with different musicians on presenting various types of music.

“Musicians should never restrict themselves to just in the little world of their particular instrument. Rather, they should expose themselves to the grand ocean of music,” says Yan.

“Guitar is just a medium. I love guitar, but I love music more. I hope that my audiences will appreciate the beauty of music with my interpretation, rather than just being amazed by my techniques on guitar. My existence is to help them enjoy the ultimate music, and ideally forget about the guitar as a format.”

 

Yang Xuefei’s performance

Date: July 8, 7:30pm

Address: 523 Yan’an Rd E.

Admission: Free


 

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