Interview with Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang – Part 2 of 3

Welcome back folks! Here’s part two of my fantastic interview with Chinese super-guitarist Xuefei Yang! If you missed part one, here’s the link: Interview with Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang – Part 1 of 3.

In part two of the interview Fei tells us about how she goes about preparing to premiere a brand new piece of music, the music she will be playing in up coming Australian tour, her favourite music to play and her thoughts and approaches on playing contemporary music.

Xuefei Yang Photo credit: Neil Muir
Xuefei Yang Photo credit: Neil Muir

How do you go about preparing a brand new piece? Do you go about things differently than with a classic of the repertoire?

I think that it’s like a two-edged sword. The disadvantage is that you’ve never heard anything of it, you don’t know the background. The advantage is that you have some freedom I find and also – even better – is if you have a chance to meet the composer. The you can ask him directly what does he want, and what he means. I think that can be a great advantage. If you play Bach you can’t really ask him! Or even Albeniz, you know, you can’t go back to ask him.

So, yes, it’s an advantage and a disadvantage. I think that if I can have a chance to meet a composer like Tan Dun. I’m going to premiere some other pieces in October so I’m going to ask them as much as possible. Even to talk to them, sometimes they don’t play the guitar which can be a good thing, they just think about the music. That can actually be a great advantage. Of course it can be a disadvantage too – the piece can be awkward for the instrument. There’s always two sides, but I always try to ask the composer as much as possible.

If some composer has already passed and I don’t have a chance to ask then, I think the advantage is that you have more freedom. In playing contemporary music we have more freedom. In a way I think that contemporary music can be close to use because it’s a modern thing. Bach is like how many years hundreds of years ago right? But twentieth century music is quite close to us, and you can get inspired from the architecture, the modern art and the modern literature. Everything is all related actually. So in a way I think it’s easier to find information to help you understand. I think I try to those advantages.

Also, in a way, if I don’t recordings of a contemporary piece to listen to, it can be an advantage too. Because with a classic piece you’ve heard too many versions, you know? You will more or less be affected. You probably don’t know, or you probably don’t want to admit, but you actually are influenced by a certain version. So if I play a new piece, and I’ve never heard anybody play it, then it’s me! You go on YouTube and you can find hundreds of things. It’s an advantage too.

You’re playing at the Sydney Opera House first of all in Australia, what are you going to be playing in your solo shows? 

I’m playing the (Bach) Chaconne, some John Williams pieces, some From A Bird. Yes, I like that piece very much. He said that when he was at his Australian home he heard a honeyeater bird singing outside his window – I think it’s an Australian bird isn’t it? We don’t have it here in England! In concert people don’t know what it looks like! – a John Williams piece, a Chinese piece – a traditional piece. I’m also premiering in Australia a modern Chinese piece that was written for me last year, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall in London. Her name is Chen Yi, she’s a female composer, a leading Chinese composer, based in the USA.

So Bach, some contemporary, some Schubert songs. I feel I have to play something from the Romantic era – that’s my home! Nowadays I enjoy pretty much everything all the same, but I would say that when I was younger, when I was a teenager I felt most at home playing the Romantic music, because think that I have a strong intuition. When I was a kid, a teenager, I more or less played music by feeling and without too much analysis, and this is to do with how I was taught to play music in China. Romantic music you can play by feeling, just be spontaneous. But if you play contemporary music, just by feelings, that’s not enough. You really, really need to know what you want to express, it’s the voicing, what is your voicing, your phrasing. The melody is not quite to obvious as Schubert, Schubert is just there, it’s so “singing”. But with contemporary you have to find the phrasing, the voicing and the structure.  but once you can find it you can convince yourself how to play this piece. And once you’ve convinced yourself you have a better chance – I only say better chance! – to convince the audience!

I find another part of the difficulty of playing a contemporary piece that even if you know the piece very well, the audience they’ve never heard of the piece. It takes them a few times to get to know it. For example,  like the Britten Nocturnal, Julian Bream and even other people said that for them the first couple of times they didn’t understand it. And for the audience it’s even harder as they don’t have the time to study it and find out what it’s all about. If the audience goes to listen to Beethoven or a more established piece of the repertoire, a classic piece of the repertoire, people know what they are they about. If you play a very new piece though nobody knows. It’s a difficulty, so you have to really convince yourself, be so clear yourself so then you are more able to convince the audience.

You’re playing a good mix – something for everybody…

Yes, I like it that way. You know it’s a bit hard on guitar to focus on one composer. On piano you can focus on Beethoven, or Mozart, Chopin, but on guitar it’s very hard to focus on one composer. And also Sydney is my first recital in Australia so I want to have a big variety of programme because the guitar is a very capable instrument, we really can play lots of different repertoire. I’m a player that feels comfortable playing lots of different repertoire too and also for the audience it’s nice to hear different, a balanced repertoire. I myself like to hear this.

The Sydney Opera House is a pretty cool place for your first Australian concert….

Yes I know! I thought about it a long time ago when I saw a picture of it I thought “hmm, I should visit Sydney. When would I have a chance to play there?”. And now! It finally comes! So really excited.


Stay tuned for part three of the interview coming up next week – the biggest, bestest part! And don’t forget to check out Fei’s Australian tour dates (and get in now for your tickets!):



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