Classical guitar, Chinese style

Updated: Dec 22, 2022 Women of China Print
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[Photo provided to Women of China]

Yang Xuefei, the UK-based classical guitarist known as the first internationally recognized Chinese guitarist on the world stage, has released her latest album, Magna Carta. The album features music by British composer John Brunning. Yang is one of the few guitarists whose artistry connects with audiences far beyond the guitar fraternity. Yang, who has spent more than 20 years abroad, has grown from a student into a well-known classical guitarist. She believes she has the responsibility of helping to spread Chinese culture. "It is my responsibility, as a performer, to teach foreigners about China, to help them learn about Chinese culture, and to help them really like our culture," she says.

Yang was interviewed by Brunning, a composer and Classic FM presenter, in a Chinese restaurant in London in 2007.

Yang was surprised to learn Brunning was also a guitarist - and a composer. In the years since that interview, Yang has recorded some of Brunning's compositions, and she has performed his creations during her concerts. Yang and Brunning also kept in touch. About four years ago, when they reunited during the Cheltenham Music Festival, they began planning for Yang to record an album of Brunning's compositions.

On May 27, Yang released her new album of Brunning's compositions for guitar, including Concerto Magna Carta.

"When John suggested writing a concerto for me, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to bring all of his works for guitar together," says Yang. "I'm always passionate about exploring a new repertoire for the guitar, especially for guitar and orchestra. That's lacking. But even for guitar and cello — there's not much for that combination."

The name, Magna Carta, has nothing to do with the music itself. Brunning had asked his radio listeners for name suggestions for the concerto. One listener came up with the idea of Magna Carta, as the piece was completed in 2015, some 800 years after the signing of the Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta, issued in June 1215 as a peace treaty, is an iconic British achievement recognized around the world.

[Photo provided to Women of China]
[Photo provided to Women of China]

Brunning asked Yang to contribute a cadenza to his Concerto Magna Carta, which Yang did by using key melodies from each movement of the concerto, along with well-known folk tunes celebrating music from the United Kingdom.

Sumer Is Icumen In, from the same period as the creation of the Magna Carta, was one of the folk songs used by Yang. She chose it because she thought it somehow had a connection with the concerto. Thus, today's listeners can hear some music created in that period.

While recording the album, Yang was backed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Clark Rundell conducted. Yang recalls everyone was in a happy mood on the day of the recording, and the weather was good.

"I couldn't be more delighted that Xuefei has recorded my complete works for guitar with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, though, for obvious reasons, I prefer to think of it as my complete works for guitar ‘so far'!" Brunning says.

Brunning, one of Classic FM's most popular and longest-serving presenters, has been writing music for several decades, which has been performed by various artists, including soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, The King's Singers choir and classical guitarist Craig Ogden.

Also featured on Yang's new album is the world-premiere recording of Brunning's Five Romances, arranged for guitar and orchestra. The five works were originally conceived separately, with two written for guitar, two as motets and one as a work for strings.

The final composition on the album is Lacrimosa, originally written for solo guitar, but reworked for guitar and cello. Brunning feels Lacrimosa creates "an intensely emotional conversation between the two instruments." Cellist Johannes Moser joined Yang during the recording.

The guitar has always been Brunning's instrument, and everything he has done has originated from the guitar. He composes with a guitar, not a piano.

"The project grew out of the fact we had some music there with the concerto, and some other pieces as well. I think it was actually Xuefei's idea to do either Five Bagatelles or Five Romances, so we settled on the latter and the extra piece with the cello. Really, the driving force for that was that we wanted sufficient material for a physical CD," says Brunning.

Each of the Five Romances — Pastorale, Dusk, Elegy, Sahara and El Verano — evoke a different mood, place or season, and each is made all the more vivid in the settings for guitar and strings, says Yang.

Yang has virtually been one with a guitar since she fell in love with the musical instrument at the age 7.

Born in Beijing in 1977, Yang was a musical pioneer when most children were learning to play musical instruments, such as piano and violin, in China.

Yang says she didn't really know what the guitar was when she began playing it.

"I was a hyper-energetic child, and my parents simply wanted me to learn any instrument to calm me down," she says. By the time she was 10 years old, she wanted to be a professional musician. However, her parents, both of whom were teachers, did not support Yang's career choice.

Yang graduated, with a bachelor 's degree in classical guitar, from the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing, in 2000. She became the first guitarist to enter a Chinese music school, and the first to graduate with a bachelor's degree. As a student, she toured worldwide, and she performed for composer Joaquin Rodrigo, and for internationally renowned guitarist John Williams.

In 2000, Yang was offered a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, in London. She has been based in the UK for the past 20 years.

Yang has had considerable international success during her career, and she has performed in more than 50 countries, and in numerous prestigious venues, including Royal Albert Hall, in London, and Carnegie Hall, in New York.

Returning to China has always been important to Yang, and part of her touring schedule, as she hopes to promote guitar playing in her homeland.

"I want to give as many concerts as possible in China, to encourage more music lovers to take up the guitar," Yang says.

She has released numerous albums during her decades-long career. The recordings range from adapted pieces of classical music, by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert, to the music of contemporary Brazilian guitarists, including Antonio Carlos Jobim, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Joao Pernambuco.

Yang says she has been on a journey, since the beginning of her professional career, to explore Chinese repertoire for guitar. The experiences gained while traveling around the globe and performing music from many countries has given Yang a more vivid perspective on her own cultural background.

In August 2020, Yang released an album, Sketches of China, which was her first album of completely Chinese music.

The album, 17 compositions on two discs, includes classic and contemporary music. It covers solo pieces, chamber music with other Chinese instrumentalists, and pieces for guitar and orchestra.

For the album, she adapted Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon, one of the best-known orchestral works by Ren Guang, a noted Chinese composer of the early 20th century.

She also adapted White Snow in the Spring Sunlight, a classic piece of traditional Chinese music, which first appeared in a pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute) score during the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911).

Yang arranged A Moonlit Night on the Spring River for guitar for the album. The composition, a signature pipa piece of the Chinese classical repertoire, and named after a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poem by Zhang Ruoxu, describes a charming moonlight scene over a waterside village south of the Yangtze River.

Yang also recorded Everlasting Longing, a traditional Chinese composition, with guzheng (Chinese zither) player Yuan Sha, her longtime friend and former roommate at the Central Conservatory of Music.

"The sound of guitar has a magical quality, which keeps surprising me," says Yang. "While respecting the spirit of traditional Chinese music, it's important for the music to develop and live with the current times."

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Yang was forced to cancel or postpone concerts in China. She hopes to tour China in November, so she can share the music on her new album with Chinese audiences.

Photos Supplied by Interviewee

(Women of China English Monthly June 2022 issue)

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