“Piano is the most popular instrument in China because of the Lang Lang effect,” said the classical guitarist Xuefei Yang, referring to her famed pianist countryman. “But most Chinese people live in apartments where it's hard to practice the piano. The guitar is much nicer to practice in your apartment. It's compact."
Yang's belief in the guitar isn't merely pragmatic but inspired by a broader sense of purpose. “I feel it’s important for the guitar to get involved in the main musical family. Classical guitar is a little bit on the edge of the music family.”
As a proselytizer for her instrument, Yang has work to do. Part of the classical guitar's legitimacy problem lies in its limited repertory. While the piano and violin have centuries of music at their disposal, the first concerto for guitar, by Mario Castenuovo-Tedesco, dates only from 1939. Rodrigo's famous Concierto de Aranjuez from 1940 has become the most performed concerto of the 20th century, but still, one can only hear the Rodrigo so many times.
Hence Yang’s latest album, a collection of transcriptions of J.S. Bach, which includes two of his violin concertos, the harpsichord concerto in D minor, and three short solo pieces. Yang said the recording was born out of her desire to expand the Baroque repertoire beyond a few Vivaldi lute pieces. "I really wanted to play something substantial,” she said. “So I found the violin concerto scores and I found they’re very playable on the guitar.”
Bach himself was arguably the greatest transcriber of all time -- of others' music as well as his own. Yang still had her doubts as to whether she could master these virtuosic concertos but “my strong desire play them helped me to overcome the difficulty.” She teamed up with the Elias String Quartet, deciding that a string quartet would better balance with her instrument’s relatively soft sound than an orchestra.
The Beijing native was born in 1977, just as the Cultural Revolution had come to an end. She was the first guitarist in China to enter a music school (the Beijing Central Conservatory) and, according to her biography, the first to launch an international professional career. Yang went on to win a scholarship to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music and since graduating in 2002 she has released six studio albums (including five for EMI) and spent much of her time on the road touring.
Her performance in the WQXR café is a snapshot of her expansive interests, incorporating an arrangement of a work for pipa (Huiran Wang’s Yi Dance) and a tango-flavored piece (Tango en Skaï by Roland Dyens).
Yang hopes she help inspire more young people in China to take up the guitar. “We Chinese believe in the 30-year cycle,” she said of the nature of trends. “Everything has a cycle. After the night it’s going to be morning again.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise