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Guitar virtuoso prepares to feed China's soul

Updated: May 7, 2022 China Daily Print
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Guitar virtuoso Yang Xuefei says her guitar helps get her through the challenges of lockdown. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Around the world, China is known for its pianists and violinists, who regularly grace the stages of the most prestigious concert halls and compete at the highest level of competition. The country's reputation for guitarists, however, does not have the same international status, but in London-based Yang Xuefei, China has a virtuoso to rate alongside the best from any country.

Since starting playing at the age of 7, after her parents thought learning a musical instrument was the best way to curb her excessive energy, she has gone on to perform in more than 50 countries, at venues including the Royal Albert Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York, and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

What makes her success all the more interesting is that having steered her toward music, when she decided to take it seriously, Yang's parents were not entirely happy.

"My parents first thought about me playing the accordion, but my school music teacher was starting a guitar group so I joined without even knowing what a guitar was," she says. "When I began to get serious, my parents were against it-the guitar still wasn't seen as a proper instrument in those days, they just wanted me to play it as a hobby.

"I attended my first international guitar festival at the age of 10, where I was surrounded by adults, many from overseas, who said I had real talent, which was where I first got the idea of making a career of it. But none of the conservatoires in China had a guitar faculty then, so I had to attend the middle school attached to the central conservatoire as an unofficial student, and give up my offer of going to a better school which would have put me on the road to a good university and a good career, which my parents didn't like.

Guitar virtuoso Yang Xuefei says her guitar helps get her through the challenges of lockdown. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"My teacher was hired by the school so I could continue learning with him and then in my last year of middle school, they set up a proper guitar faculty. I was the first person in the whole of China to have a BA degree majoring in classical guitar."

Visits to Europe convinced Yang that this was where her future lay, and an encounter in Beijing with British guitar virtuoso John Williams pointed the way forward.

"Around 18 I began to have doubts about my future and to question my all-round musicianship," she says. "Then John Williams gave a master class at the Central Conservatoire where I studied, and playing with him gave me so much encouragement. It was like lighting a flame in the darkness of doubt, just when I needed it," she says.

At the age of 23 Yang became the first Chinese student to receive a full postgraduate scholarship to study at London's Royal Academy of Music.

"I learned how to play the guitar in China, but I learned how to be a musician in London," she explains. "The whole of London is such a magnet for elite artists of all kinds, it's hard not to be inspired just by being here.

"Growing up in China in the 1980s, people focused on learning how to play well and prove themselves by winning competitions, rather than by learning how to express themselves, which is what the environment in London gave me. It made me an artist."

The guitar repertoire remains largely Western-dominated, but Yang has done her bit to fly the flag for China, particularly with her 23-track 2020 recording Sketches of China, featuring Chinese music spanning the centuries.

Magna Carta, her latest release, is written by British composer and broadcaster John Brunning, and Yang says his background in playing is what makes him such a good writer.

Guitar virtuoso Yang Xuefei says her guitar helps get her through the challenges of lockdown. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Composers such as Beethoven never wrote for the guitar, not because they didn't like it, but because they didn't know how to play the instrument," she says. "John knows how the guitar works, and his music always has a melodic aspect that is missing from a lot of contemporary music.

"It's wonderful to have something to play with an orchestra, rather than just as a soloist, and John asked me to contribute a cadenza to the end, so I came up with something that incorporates folk tunes from all four parts of the United Kingdom."

Audiences in China will soon have a chance to hear how it sounds, as after a lengthy quarantine period, her latest tour starts at the end of May. It currently features 12 dates, but she is hopeful more might be added. "It depends on the local authorities, but once I'm there, hopefully the promoters might feel safe to add more shows," she explains.

The last two years have seen the world turn on its head, with performing opportunities limited, but Xuefei says her guitar helped get her through the challenges of lockdown.

"Music is food for the soul, and the guitar is so intimate as you have to hold it with your body. It's like pulling your heart strings-it helps to deal with difficult times," she explains.

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