Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I played at an international guitar festival when I was 10 years old, any many experts there said I could be a guitarist. This was the first time I had heard about playing guitar as a job. I enjoyed playing the guitar, so being a guitarist sounded like a good idea, but I didn’t really have any idea of what a career as a musician meant. However this was what triggered the idea in my mind.
An early influence was John Williams – my dad made a recording of his playing from the radio in China. I heard this music at a young age and loved it. Along the way, many artists have inspired me.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I was the first guitar student in China to enter a music school. I had to enter as an unofficial student as there was no formal guitar department at that time, no formal qualification to aim for, and no obvious career path. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but looking back, the biggest challenge was taking a path that no one else had taken in my country.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all my recordings. I put a lot of thought into each of them in terms of choosing repertoire, making arrangements, balancing old and new. For example for the Bach Concertos. I spent a long time researching, studying, arranging & practising Bach’s violin concertos, and also his harpsichord concertos to understand how I could best adapt his music for guitar. The latest Decca recordings probably present more of my current artistic state as a musician (ie Heartstrings, Colours of Brazil & Sketches of China).
You have a new recording coming our soon, tell us more about that….
‘Sketches of China’ is the first album completely dedicated to music from my homeland. Over the last twenty years, I have toured the world performing music and experienced many different cultures. I have felt an increasing desire to present a little more of my own musical heritage to these audiences. The guitar is not a Chinese instrument, so when I started there was effectively zero original repertoire from my country to play. However, the guitar is very versatile, and well suited to playing Chinese music, as China has a long heritage of plucked instruments. I have put a lot of work into arranging Chinese pieces for guitar, commissioning new words, and creating new musical collaborations with other Chinese musicians so that we can make music together. This album is the first harvest of this project. I wanted to demonstrate the depth and breadth of Chinese music – from a culture that goes back almost 5,000 years. I also wanted to cover all of the important genres of the music: traditional music, folk-inspired pieces, and of course the music being written by Chinese composers of today, using musically significant repertoire where appropriate. It was all rather too much to fit onto a single CD, so this is a double CD. Much of the current dialogue relating to China focuses on politics and economics, both of which can tend to divide people. I would like to broaden the discussion by introducing a cultural thread to the dialogue, to help unite people. This album is my personal contribution to this discussion, by offering a fresh perspective on Chinese music. For guitarists out there, it also opens a door to new repertoire for guitar.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I feel most attracted to works with a lyrical line, and freedom of expression. I have a strong innate sense of voice. I often wish that I had a bow, to extend and shape a note. On the guitar, once the note is plucked it immediately begins its inevitable journey to decay, and silence. That has a beauty of it’s own too because it makes each note all the more precious whilst it lasts, but it makes it particularly hard to make a line really sing. A big focus in a lot of my playing is to really make the line sing. I also feel I have a natural sense of rubato, so having some freedom to use this appropriately is very satisfying for me.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I often get inspiration as a result of travel – places and people. Seeing historic sites, architecture, and learning about their history and how it relates to the culture of the location. Talking with people who’ve lived a different life to my own – their life experiences all helps shape my own outlook on life. I get inspired by adding more layers to my thinking and understanding.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It varies. It’s a mix of satisfying my own curiosity and the pragmatism of providing programs that are attractive to promoters and their audiences. Some years there may be a composer anniversary coming up, so you know that promoters may be interested in programming their music, so I would include such a piece or build a program around that. As a general principle, unless I am asked to play a particular program (for example Spanish, or Latin American, or Baroque, etc), I like to give a mixed program – a mix of countries, styles, composers, old favourites, new pieces. That way everyone has something to take home. I very often try to include a Chinese piece too.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My absolute favourite is London’s Wigmore Hall – it has the perfect acoustic for listening to guitar. My favourite venues are generally those with great acoustics. The guitar is such an intimate instrument. Each note dies very soon after it is plucked, but there is great beauty in each note whilst it lasts – there is a richness and roundness to each note, packed full of different subtle overtones. As a player, sitting right next to the instrument, that’s the sound I hear, and the sound that inspires my playing, and it’s the sound I want the audience to hear. The audience, however, aren’t sitting right next to the guitar – they are often many rows away in a large hall. The acoustics of a venue can have a big effect on what the audience actually hears. In good acoustics, that richness and roundness gets transmitted to the audience too, along with the fundamental note – they hear what I’m hearing. However we live in the real world and sometimes have to play in less than ideal venues. For example theatres with carpet lined walls and floors may be great for theatre shows, but are difficult for unamplified guitar – they can just soak up the life of the notes before the notes can reach the audience. However, discreet and tasteful modern amplification can help overcome such problems.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
I think people will come to classical music if they get something from it that enriches their life experience for a few moments. People discover it, but it can’t be forced on people. Education to help people understand what it’s all about, to make them curious and help them understand their own human state as part of wider historic and cultural evolution. Also encouraging people to make music themselves – to give them the experience of the satisfaction that comes from playing an instrument. Perhaps some more accessible modern works that relate to people’s lives. Perhaps trying other performance formats other than a formal concert setting – making the audience feeling more involved.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
One was from an early stage in my career. When I was 14 I played my debut concert in Madrid. I didn’t expect he would be in my concert, but I overheard my teacher’s conversations with an interpreter, and knew that the great Spanish composer Rodrigo was coming to my recital! I was playing his greatest solo work, Invocation Y Danza in the concert. We met during intermission, and I learned that he was impressed with my playing. He was blind most of his life and I was told that he thought I was an adult player. That was such an honour to meet him, he was in his early 90’s.
More recently was last year’s unforgettable experience to play under the Eiffel Tower on the Bastille Day with the Orchestra National de Paris. It was a televised concert that was seen across Europe, and by the thousands out celebrating on the Champs de Mars. By good fate, we also played the Rodrigo concerto in that concert!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think about that a lot. I hope I can reach to a level that fulfils my voice and ability, and which will be recognised by peers and audiences. Ultimately I think it will be about being remembered for my legacy.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be true to yourself, and remind yourself why you want to be a musician.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Having good relationships with family and friends, having true love, doing something fulfilling.
What is your present state of mind?
I’m in quarantine in Shanghai ahead of a tour, after six months of concert cancellations due to coronavirus hitting the globe. So my state of mind is mixture of boredom from staying inside a room to quarantine, excitement about returning to the stage, slight nervousness about travelling around post-quarantine, and some anxiety about the near future.
Xuefei Yang’s new doulbe album, ‘Sketches of China’, is now available from Decca. It’s the result of a long-cherished desire to showcase the breadth and depth of Chinese music on her chosen instrument. More information
Xuefei Yang is acclaimed as one of the world’s finest classical guitarists. Hailed as a musical pioneer – her fascinating journey began after the Cultural Revolution, a period where Western musical instruments & music were banned. Xuefei was the first-ever guitarist in China to enter a music school, & became the first internationally recognised Chinese guitarist on the world stage. Her first public appearance was at the age of ten and received such acclaim that the Spanish Ambassador in China presented her with a concert guitar. Her debut in Madrid at the age of 14 was attended by the composer Joaquín Rodrigo and, when John Williams heard her play, he gave two of his own instruments to Beijing’s Central Conservatoire especially for her and other advanced students.