Classical Guitarist Xuefei Yang Channels Bream, Bach, and her Ancestors

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At the beginning of a concert in San Francisco, Xuefei Yang dazzled the crowd by performing the Bach Lute Suite BWV 995 on a 7-string guitar. She departed the stage and returned with a 6-string she had only been playing for two days, as it was slated to be raffled off to benefit a local classical guitar series. Then, she continued to delight the audience with a repertoire of Chinese and Brazilian music. Whether tackling different styles, or playing unfamiliar instruments, Yang appears to have no fear.

This is documented further on her recent CD, Songs from Our Ancestors [Globe Music], where Yang interprets songs not only from her Chinese ancestors, but also from the repertoire of legendary guitarist Julian Bream. Listen to her performance of Bream’s arrangement of “Gloriana, Op. 53: The Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex” by Benjamin Britten, and you will understand why Yang was chosen to perform when Bream was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Gramophone Awards in London. More recently, Yang was honored in Guitar Player’s May 2017 cover story as one of the magazine’s “50 Sensational Female Guitarists.”

I was very impressed with the Chinese pieces on Songs from Our Ancestors.

I’m quite grateful that Globe Music asked me to play music from my ancestors. That is a great thing, because European music is quite dominating. “Sword Dance” was written for a Chinese instrument called the liuqin that has four strings. The other piece, “Shuo Chang” was written for me by Cheng Yi, who is living in the U.S. That piece is very guitaristic.

It struck me as I was listening to “Drunken Ecstasy” and “Flowing Water” that you were adapting these pieces from the 7-string guqin.

Yes—those two pieces are very ancient guqin music. Guqin is one of the oldest Chinese instruments—it literally means “ancient instrument.” Guqin has a big repertoire. Technically, it’s a little bit similar to guitar. The left hand you press, and the right hand you pluck, and they even use a bit of fingernail, so you have a lot of ways to pluck the strings. I wanted to do “Flowing Water” a long time ago. I love that piece. This project pushed me a bit, and it was a good opportunity to get this piece done. The guqin has seven strings, but, to be honest, you don’t need a 7-string guitar for most of the guqin pieces, as there’s no harmony or polyphony. But, in “Flowing Water,” there’s an imitation of water with lots of arpeggios that can’t be done on a 6-string. I had bought the 7-string guitar mainly for my Bach recordings, but then I found another use for it with the Chinese music.

You currently tour with two different guitars.

For live concerts, I play a Greg Smallman guitar. It is loud, and it has a lot of resonance, which is very useful in large venues. I find that if your guitar sound is thin, you automatically try to push it more, and the tone just gets even thinner. That’s a dilemma. I use the analogy that the guitar is a cat, and the Smallman is a fat cat.

What is the other guitar?

That’s the 7-string guitar — a Paul Fischer. He’s a renowned British luthier. The extra string is very confusing to play, but, at the same time, it really pleases me—especially when I play the Bach lute works. I so admire the low bass on the lute, so I tune my extra bass string to A. The other six strings are in standard tuning. Of course, I have to change all the fingerings for both the left hand and the right hand when I use the 7-string. The right hand is quite confusing, actually [laughs]. I’ve just been playing it for a month, so it’s pretty much a new thing. Sometimes, I think, “Why do I give myself extra trouble?”

How does your approach differ from playing solo, to accompanying a singer, to working with a full orchestra?

That’s a very good question—it’s actually very different. When you play solo, it’s relatively easy to project the ideas you want to bring out. While collaborating with a singer, you get first-hand experience as to how lyrical the music should be. We instrumentalists should imitate the singer’s phrasing and their expressiveness. Accompaniment is our main role. But when you are playing a concerto with an orchestra, you are the main role, and you have to lead them. As a guitarist it’s a bit difficult, because our instrument is relatively quiet, and you are competing with this huge, dinosaur-sized orchestra. To bring out the musical ideas and nuances, you have to really dramatize the details and tone colors. You have to project. To play a concerto, everything has to be more. You have to be very confident.