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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

China's new star on the guitar

By Norman Lebrecht / April 2, 2008

Sir Paul McCartney tells me he’s writing a guitar concerto and doesn’t know who he should get to play it. No problem, I say. Let’s ask my friend Luis in Madrid, a world expert on plucks and frets. But Luis has no name to give us. It seems the classical guitar has run clean out of stars.

There used to be Andres Segovia, Narcisco Yepes, the Romero brothers, Julian Bream and Tony Blair’s pal, Paco Pena, never far from a television screen. The Australian John Williams outshone the lot in flower-power shirts, electro-pop fusions and movie deals. Classical guitar set the tone for The Deer Hunter and A Fish Called Wanda. It was cool to strum classical, for a while. And then, like all fads, it died for want of a defining personality. John Williams is 67 this month, with no heir in sight.

Enter Xuefei Yang, breaking moulds. A rare woman on a macho instrument, she speaks no word of Spanish and comes from a culture untouched by the quixotic, unmoved by romantic plaints on nylon strings. Everything she has done from infancy on has been a first. She was the first to study guitar at a Chinese music school, the first Chinese to win a guitar scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, the first Chinese guitarist to land a record deal. Fei, her preferred English name, has spent her life playing against formidable odds.

‘It was all an accident, maybe fate,’ she relates, over tea. ‘I was seven years old, very energetic, and my parents, both teachers, felt I should play an instrument. It was the end of the cultural revolution and the accordion was needed to accompany choirs. But the accordion was too heavy, I was so little. So my Mum got me into a guitar class, where everyone else was 11 or 12. My father recorded John Williams for me from the radio and I couldn’t stop playing.’

At ten years old, her debut was attended by the Spanish ambassador. Against parental objections, she turned down the best secondary school in Beijing at 12 to enter the Conservatory. Conditions were so rudimentary that she would never have found a credible sound had not Williams, in 1995, left her his own instrument at the end of a China tour. At 14 she played the Concierto de Aranjuez in Madrid for its aged, blind composer, Joaquin Rodrigo. Coming to London, she says, ‘was so important for my musicianship, meeting other artists in a major cultural centre.’ She made her home in Wimbledon, far from the city’s night life.

Determination is etched on Fei’s features as graphically as on the First Emperor’s warriors at the British Museum. Her chin juts to a point, her conversation admits no frivolity. At the end of her 20s, she is on the road much of this year, taking part in China Now and suchlike run-ups for the Beijing Olympics. There is a Wigmore Hall recital this month and a new album, her second, alternating snippets of Albeniz and Granados with the Butterfly Lovers concerto and other Chinese favourites.

EMI have decked her out in a sham-glam makeover and the crossover angle of her current mix has led friends to taunt her with Vanessa-Mae comparisons. But Fei is neither flash nor bimbo. What’s striking about the new recording is the care she takes with two disparate idioms, each with an ancient culture of plucked instruments. She plays Sevilla, Cordoba and Castilla, from Albeniz’s Suite Espanola, with plausible virtuosity and wide-eyed discovery. In Chinese melodies she does little to soften pentatonic austerities for western ears, opting rather to show off the aptitude of her instrument for indigenous tunes. Her parents live in Beijing and she remains true to her roots, intent on conquering China for the guitar.

‘Half of all students in Chinese universities have tried the guitar,’ she reports. ‘I want to be a role model to that generation, the way that Lang Lang has been for the piano.’

Around 60 percent of the world’s guitars are now made in China and something in excess of 100,000 instruments a month, acoustic and electric, are sold in the domestic market. That’s a million new players a year, not so much a revival of guitar fortunes as a sub-continental revolution.

Can Xuefei Yang be the new face of the classical guitar? I am more than half persuaded that she might be. She has the technique, the ambition and the sheer grit to play Aranjuez week after week - 70 times so far – with a smile that she insists is not simulated. She is constricted by repertoire – no other romantic guitar concerto has caught the public ear and the baroque stuff sounds better on lute – but Fei is confident that an influx of Chinese music can win new audiences. Sir Paul has, by now, got her name in his frame.

The one thing she will not weaken is stylistic integrity. She plays four guitars on the album, each suited to idiom. The project is titled Forty Degrees North, which needs some explanation. It appears that Fei looked at the globe and found that Beijing and Madrid share the same latitude. Why not, she demands, the same instrument?

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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