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.

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