Interview with Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang – Part 1 of 3

Last week I was extremely honoured to Skype with none other than guitarist extraordinaire Xuefei Yang!!

On the eve of her first  tour Down Under and world premiere of a new guitar concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun we had a fantastic chat about what she’ll be playing and how she goes about preparing for such a tour. Fei also shared some words of wisdom for students of the classical guitarist. We had such a great chat that I’ve decided to split it across three posts. Here in part one today you can read about Fei’s thoughts on playing classic and brand new repertoire, keeping things fresh, and the classical guitar repertoire.

(c) Neil Muir

Xuefei Yang (c) Neil Muir

You’re coming over to Australia very soon and we’re super excited to have you here! You’re going to be playing some classic repertoire and some new with the Tan Dun concerto premiere. Tell us a bit about the preparations for playing both the well known and the brand new repertoire.

In fact I just met him (Tan Dun) last month in Beijing, after a concert. I always wanted to meet him and he’s a very nice guy, he’s someone who works so hard and he’s already very famous, but he’s working everyday. He has so many ideas about music,  and he’s so enthusiastic. I think he’s trying to bring music to be relevant to people’s life now and I think that’s great. And he’s trying to bring the audience, and young people, to listen to new music and all of that sounds great I think.

You know I am very happy that the orchestra asked me to play a new piece, because especially guitarists, they complain “why always Aranjuez?! why always Aranjuez?!“, but you know I have to say that mostly it’s not our choice, you now! Mostly it’s the orchestra that makes the choice because they have their season, they have their programming, they have a concerto they have to hire a soloist to fit in their theme, so usually I don’t get to choose. Unless you’re John Williams then maybe – may be he can choose!

It’s kind of a good way to do it though, have the Aranjuez which is the “crowd pleaser” or the “crowd drawerer”, but then also introduce the audience to something new.

Yes, yes exactly. I think it’s a good idea. All the classic pieces they will draw the audience, you know, may be they want to hear this piece, but at the same time they have to hear the new piece which is great I think. And Tan Dun he’s always putting some Chinese element in his music which is great, I think that’s what we should do more. As I grow older I try to bring our culture into what I play, so it’s a great opportunity for me.

How do you go about keeping things such as the Aranjuez fresh, which you must know so well?

To be honest to Aranjuez I know it very very well, especially after recording. After you’ve recorded something you really know that music! But in a way it’s still….I never get bored of it. My theory is that with great music you never get bored. For example, in my recital I’m going to play the Chaconne by Bach, that is a piece that I never get bored of playing it. And in fact you change your feeling and your understanding and your interpretation of that piece over the years. So my theory is that if the music is great, then you don’t get bored. And the listener doesn’t get bored.

The other thing is also because playing concerto is quite different to playing solo, to be honest my first times playing concerto I was like dealing with my nerves! I was really quite nervous to play in front of an orchestra. But in recent years with my experience I can find that I’m more and more into the music because I get more used to playing a concerto in front of an orchestra and with amplification. More and more I really feel now I can really get the music out. So yes, I  haven’t gotten bored of it.

In fact, the other thing about playing a concerto is that every time you play with a different orchestra, you work with a different conductor and the venues are different, the sound and the audiences are different. So with all this combination each time is a new experience – honestly! Especially with concerto because you have to collaborate with other people. With solo its just myself. So in terms of Aranjuez I never get bored. In fact I think I’m getting better and better!

With all that I’m quite happy with my recording, but I feel in a way, especially the second movement, I’m playing a but different. I think the recording is like a snapshot of that particular moment of your life. So I’m really looking forward to play with an Australian orchestra this piece. Now sometimes after I’ve played the second movement, I get goosebumps myself! Like “oooh I’m really in the zone!“. I also lots of times after the performance some audience members have come to say to me that they were really moved, and moved into tears. For me that’s the greatest reward, it’s the most rewarding thing to hear, yeah! So hoping I can touch some hearts in Australia!

It deserves to be played a lot, but at the same time I wish there were other guitar concertos that could be played more too! The thing of playing contemporary music is that  we don’t know which one will become the “classic” one because time is the ultimate test. Those that are lucky enough to live after another 100 years will know which one will become the classic piece! So I think we just need to keep trying new pieces. The players levels these days are getting higher and higher and that can encourage the composer so they know what we can do on the instrument so they can write more interesting pieces. It’s like a loop, so our playing affects their compositions and their compositions affects our playing, like a loop. It all gets better and better and that way we can get more interesting repertoire.

But to be honest I think the repertoire is very very important for the instrument. I feel the development of the instrument, of the repertoire, is so so important. Why is it that we hear so much piano and violin, the orchestra, everyday in the concert hall? It’s because of the repertoire. There are too many great pieces to play.

I think other musicians usually say the guitar has a smaller repertoire, which I don’t actually agree with. I think the guitar repertoire is big but we don’t have a big mainstream repertoire. We don’t have the German, Austrian, mainstream repertoire. That’s almost a zero. That’s the problem there. You go to Germany and you’re not likely to hear our music, it’s not their tradition. But can only start to work from now. Well from Segovia he did, he promoted lots of composer, lots of repertoire. And Julian Bream, John Williams, we can enjoy playing those players repertoire, so we need to keep doing the same. The next generation can then have more music.

Be sure to head back this way on Thursday for part two where you can hear about what Fei is playing in her solo Australian and what else she’s working on at the moment.

Morning (or evening?!) folks! A bit of a technical hitch here at this end, but keep watching this space for I have a VERY exciting post headed your way on Monday.

In the meantime, and by way of a bit of a taster for Monday, enjoy some classical guitar at its finest from guitarist extraordinaire Xuefei Yang….

Album Review: Fine Light by Rick Alexander

For those of you who are regular readers you would have seen the name of Melbourne guitarist-composer Rick Alexander a few times on the blog in the last year or so, including a guest post written by the man himself*.

Well, in September 2013 (yes, I know I’m late in reviewing this – naughty me!), Rick released his latest (and might I add greatest) collection of pieces for solo nylon string guitar. Actually, to call the tracks on the album “pieces” doesn’t seem to fit quite right,  I like to think of them as rather songs without words, such is their beautifully melodic quality.

Fine Light is a wonderful collection of imaginative, lyrical and reflective songs, some of which Rick began writing in the early 2000s and completed in 2013. For me this album is a perfect accompaniment to a lazy Sunday morning, or a quiet reflective evening in – there’s certainly more than enough melodic and harmonic interest there to keep you humming along (and even making an earworm or two), but without overly taxing the noggin. If you like simply beautiful instrumental music, delivered in a cool, clear crisp and emotive manner by the composer themself then this is a recording to add to the collection.

Rick

Of the 16 tracks on the album here are some of the highlights for me:

Missing You – Rick wrote this one for his wife after she’d just left for a long trip overseas, a tune with a sweet, longing disposition but without being overly melancholy. Rick makes great use of some alternative tuning on this track, tuning the A string down to G, which lends a fantastic depth and resonance to the tune.

Intersection - overdubbed duet of interweaving lines, originally intended and recorded purely as a solo piece, but Rick then decided to overdub an improvised second part over the top to great effect

Gliding - a song with wistful, slightly melancholy feel. Rick brings in a key change midway through that offers a glimmer of positive hope, with shimmering chords and a delightfully positive ending.

Frozen Space – another with a slightly wistful feel to it, but with some lovely guitaristic effects including perfectly timed use of harmonics. Simply beautiful.

PJ – not a song about his pyjamas! This is a tune Rick wrote in 2012 whilst in Petaling Jaya (PJ), Malaysia and features a wonderfully laid-back, upbeat melody, featuring a really lovely ending with a nice little jazzy chord for good measure. Up there in the running for my favourite track of all.

Fine Light – an intriguing opening with plenty of breathing space, making you wonder where it’s headed…..Before Rick then launches into this great toe-tapper of a tune. In fact I dare you to listen to this one and not tap along! I’d go so far as to say that this is my favourite track of them all – most definitely. It’s just an all-round great tune, a great up-beat feel, some really nice harmonies with a little bit of spice, contemporary cross-flavour nylon string guitar writing at its best.

If you head on over to Rick’s website he’s got Missing You and Fine Light  up there as free tracks to listen to. He’s also been kind enough to transcribe them and post up the sheet music for you too, so you can play along!

I definitely recommend you head over and check it out:  http://www.rickalexanderguitar.com/finelight.html

And if you wanted your own copy of this gorgeous recording, the same link features the various ways you can get hold of a copy for yourself – CD or a download through iTunes or Amazon. The CD is also available through Amazon, CD Baby and CD Universe. Alternatively if you’re in Melbourne you can buy the CD from Hans Music Spot, Croydon or from Audiophile Reference Recordings at 2 Florence Street, Burwood.

 

* Just in case you missed out here are those previous posts featuring Rick:

http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2013/09/23/introducing-rick-alexander/

http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2014/03/17/qa-with-rick-alexander/

http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2014/02/03/from-nylon-to-steel-and-back/

I Broke A Fingernail! How To Cope With A Broken Fingernail

A few weeks ago I put up a post about playing guitar with nails versus flesh – http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2014/06/23/classical-guitar-playing-nails-or-flesh/

Well, this past week I’ve had an enforced experimentation with just flesh playing (well, on one finger anyway!), as I went and snapped my “a” fingernail! Eek! For someone who plays with nails 99.999% of the time this has been a bizarre sensation and a good reminder that nails are indeed my preference for playing! Why? For all those reasons I’ve previously outlined, but mainly greater projection and greater tonal control.

It is inevitable, however, that at some point we are all going to break, snap, chip or somehow otherwise negatively impact our playing nails.

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So what can be done when they get broken?

(1) Accept that it is broken!  Yes, it has happened. Yes, it is unfortunate. Yes, you will live. Yes, it will grow back.

(2) Minimise potential for any further damage to the nail. Depending on the nature of the chip, nick or snap this may involve trimming the nail further back beyond the damaged area and growing again from purely healthy, undamaged nail. It may take slightly longer for the nail to grow back to full playing length doing this, but you’ll be pretty much guaranteed not to have knock-on effects from the original nail damage or recurring chips or snaps.

(3) Depending on the side of the nail you damage (if it’s not a full nail snap off), you may be able to rescue the playing side whilst trimming back and smoothing off (you don’t want to snag it as this will make things even worse) the non-playing side. It will likely have an impact on your tone production and I’d lay off going too heavy with a nail in this condition, but will allow you to continue playing with the nail.

(4) If you’re in desperate need particularly if you’ve damaged the playing side and you need the nail (i.e. you’ve got a concert or exam coming up fairly soon), there is an option to retain that damaged nail, as per (3), and doing an interim repair job with layers of tissue paper and glue. Layer on the paper and glue, papier mache style, let it dry and then shape. Alternatively, you could test out a stick-on nail such as the Rico Nail.

(5) Be aware of your nails’ idiosyncrasies and manage accordingly. This includes recognising tendancies such as splitting a certain point and/or length or curling at a certain length.

(6) If you’ve damaged then nail down in the living area and you have a fault growing through the nail (which I have had on my “m” finger for around the last 10 months), see item (1) and just remember it’s there and manage it suitably to create your playing surface.

(7) Keep on top of maintaining your nails on a regular basis. Get into the habit of just giving them a maintenance file and buff before playing. I tend to mine before sitting down to practice, but once a week I’ll sit down for 20-30 minutes and carry out some more serious length control (I’m blessed with them growing quickly) and shaping.

(8) And of course, take care not to damage them in the first place! Check out a post from last year on taking care of your nails: http://classicalguitarnstuff.com/2013/09/26/nails-mind-the-nails-looking-after-your-guitarists-fingernails/

Xuefei Yang in Geelong in October!

Time to get excited Australian guitarists! Chinese guitarist extraordinaire Xuefei Yang is headed to our southern shores in late September and early October for her Australian debut tour. Very exciting!

She’ll be kicking things off on 28th September at the Sydney Opera House with a solo recital before headed down to Melbourne for a star turn with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on 2nd and 3rd October at the revamped Hamer Hall. Xuefei and the MSO will also be heading to the West Gippsland Arts Centre, Warragul (4th October) and Frankston Arts Centre (6th October).

Xuefei will be making her Australian debut playing what is probably everyone’s favourite classical guitar concerto (it’s certainly a favourite of mine) – Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. She, along with the MSO, will also be playing the Australian premiere of the new classical guitar concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun, composer of the music to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Xuefei Yang (Credit: Neil Muir)

And for those of us in Victoria we’re going to be in for an extra special treat. Following her appearances at the Sydney Opera House and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Hamer Hall, Xuefei will be headed to Geelong to present a solo concert of works by Albeniz, Bach, Williams, de Falla, Rodrigo and Brouwer as well as traditional Chinese music.

The concert will be held on Tuesday 7th October at 8pm in Sacred Heart College’s exquisite chapel. A great reason to take the trip down to Geelong if ever there was!!

Tickets are now on sale from the college’s online shop. http://www.shcgeelong.catholic.edu.au/

For tickets to Xuefei’s concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra head to:  http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/classical-music/concerto-de-aranjuez

For a bit of a taste of what will be in store, here’s Xuefei playing the Adagio of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Barcelona Symphony. Enjoy!

The Importance of Performance Practice

Practice, practice, practice – that’s something I whittle on about a fair bit on this blog. It is very important if you want to progress on the classical guitar, or any other instrument, or any other skill really. Consistent, regular, targeted practice. Can’t beat it!

There is one more thing that you also need to be doing, particularly if you’re looking to take an exam, or perform for others in some capacity.

What is it? Performance practice.

Practicing the act of performing is so important and I was reminded of this by a friend of mine this week who has just attained his Diploma in Piano Performance. He commented that practicing performance, practicing in front of friends, strangers and basically anyone that would listen made a huge difference for him when it came to taking the exam. From my own point of view, I couldn’t agree more and have experienced the same for myself.

It’s a bit like a professional athlete – training and working out in the gym day in and day out or rehearsing set pieces or moves is undoubtedly going to make you (a) very fit and (b) well across how, when and where you need to move. This fitness is not “match fitness” however. There’s something about getting into the fray that does make all the difference – it’s the getting out there and committing, learning from the experience and developing from it. This makes you a true athlete.

In the same way, as a guitarist putting yourself into “match” situations is really going to sharpen up your playing game!

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Why is it important?

You will undoubtedly experience some physical and mental feelings and sensations that you wouldn’t necessarily experience in the practice room when it’s just you, the guitar and the dog. By practicing your performance skills you expose yourself to, learn to go with and even use to your advantage the differing feelings and sensations of live performance. There’s no substitute for doing this really.

You can also practice other elements of your performance – practicing how you will walk to your chair, how you will set yourself up, how you will tune, and importantly how you will accept your rapturous applause in what is quite possibly a new or different environment to that you used to in your daily practice.

How?

See if you’re able, particularly in the lead up to your next exam or recital, to work some performance practice sessions in. Play for your family one Sunday afternoon, play for your friends one evening, join a local musical group or guitar society and find out when their social gatherings are, busk, play for hospital patients. There are opportunities everywhere. It doesn’t really matter where, or for how long (or even playing what in the early days whilst you’re getting used to it), the important thing is just to give it a crack.

Nervous?

There’s only really one real sure fire way of blowing your nerves out of the water, and that’s to get lots of performance in! Do it over and over and over again. Accept and allow yourself to feel nervous. It’s OK.

By getting up there and doing it, allowing yourself to feel the sometimes oddly different experience of playing for others will help dissipate your feeling of nerves over time. Getting your performance practice in now will allow you to experience and manage these experiences, feelings and so on in relatively “safe” environments.

And just like your day to day practice, the more you do of something (generally) the easier it becomes and the more natural it becomes too.

 

New Release of Andrew Violette’s Hour Long Sonata for Guitar Featuring Daniel Lippel

I once again find myself in the super-privileged position to be able to be invited to listen to, review and share with you some wonderful music written for our wonderful instrument.

This week I’ve been listening to the very first recording of a work by an American contemporary composer I’ll admit to being completely unfamiliar with, Andrew Violette. This work is his Sonata for Guitar written in 1997 and what an epic it is! The fact that has remained, until now, unrecorded is no slight on the music – it’s a very interesting, well thought out, exploration of harmony and melody. I would imagine it is because it clocks in at just a couple of minutes over the 1 hour mark – that’s a heck of an undertaking for a solo guitarist when we normally see 20 to 25 minutes as a lengthy piece of work!

The guitarist that committed to taking on and recording this mammoth work (and I am so glad that he did) is US guitarist Daniel Lippel.  Lippel recorded and released the Sonata through his own label New Focus Recordings (co-founded with compose Peter Gilbert in 2004 to release recordings with maximum creative control). To date Lippel’s recordings have garnered him critical acclaim from Gramophone, American Record Guide, Classical Review of North America, American Record Guide, Guitar Review, Music Web International, Sequenza21, and several other publications.

The Sonata, inspired by the hazy memories of being enthralled by Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal and making thematic references to that piece, is divided into six movements:

(1) Moderato – setting the melodic and harmonic outlines for the piece. There are some beautiful melodic lines in this movement, some beautiful musical shapes, that I could imagine singing. Rhythmically, like the rest of movements in the piece, this is very straightforward with the interest very much coming from the melodic shapes and treatment of the harmonies – a harmonic rhythm if you will – and interweaving of lines.

(2) Colorfield – my joint favourite of the movements, which surprised me when I read that it was all based on the one harmony. 25 minutes of the one harmony. “Hmmm interesting” I thought and interesting listening it certainly is. This is all about meditating on one musical colour, really understanding and getting to grips with what can be achieved with just one part of the palette, a true musical exploration. In Violette’s words it makes use of “subtly shifting accents and syntax to produce similar lines with different semantic and metric meaning“. Spellbinding.

(3) Intermezzo – This lush and beguiling little Intermezzo opens the second half of the sonata and re-introduces harmonic movement, which is gently refreshing on the ear following the hypnotic harmony of the Colourfield, before moving on quickly into the Fuga.

(4) Fuga a 3 voci: Homage to Joaquin Rodrigo – my other joint favourite movement. We still hear the same harmonic and melodic themes here, but the Spanish elements reminiscent of Rodrigo add a spicy flavour and new aural twist to material we’ve experienced to date. A really nice nod to the type of material that sits so well on the instrument too. Possibly the most guitaristic of the movements.

(5) Chaconne after Britten (Andante) – The penultimate movement references the Passcaglia from Britten’s Nocturnal, and makes use of some very beautiful melodic lines that sing so well on the guitar. Actually I retract my statement above about the Fuga being the most guitaristic of the movements – this is highly guitaristic music and would have to be next in line in order of preference of the movements. Wonderful stuff.

(6) Lullaby –  I love the hypnotic feel of the descending thematic material with supporting background arpeggios, and final ascending and descnding harmonics lulling you into a dream world, in a spellbinding fashion reminiscent of the Colourfield. A wonderful way to end the piece.

Just one tiny thing mars the recording a little for me – I think perhaps also having each movement of the Sonata as a separate track , for me personally, would allow a great accessibility to the piece and explore each movement in isolation. Just a suggestion however, but perhaps not what Lippel nor Violette intended for the listener. In that case, perhaps time indications of where each movement begins?

Anyway, this is all just very minor stuff and these things aside this is a simply marvellous demonstration of some masterful playing, sensitive to the subtle nuances of the music wending and winding its way, developing over time through the various movements. It is also a marvellous recorded debut of what is a fantastic (and epic!) piece of the modern repertoire that undoubtedly deserves to be heard far and wide. Hats off to both Lippel and Violette!

Be sure to check it out for yourself. Head on over to the New Focus Recordings website where you can download the album for the very low price of just USD$8.99 – a bargain!

http://www.newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/andrew-violette-sonata-for-guitar

 

Alternatively, you can also download through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/sg/album/andrew-violette-sonata-for/id890025619

Or Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Violette-Sonata-Daniel-Lippel/dp/B00L1XZY0G