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Xuefei Yang tells Classic FM’s John Brunning her gripping story of financial struggle and cultural acceptance to become one of the world's most talented guitarists.
If you think China’s rising status as a global power is due solely to its economic might, think again. The guitarist Xuefei Yang is the latest Chinese musician to join a growing number of elite artists on the world stage; a list that includes pianists such as Yundi Li and Lang Lang, and the tenor Yu Qiang Dai.
Xuefei, or Fei (pronounced Fay) as she is known to her English friends, is no wallflower, as I soon discover when I arrive at Ping Pong, a Cantonese restaurant in London’s West End where we are to hold the interview. The photographer is already snapping away furiously, while the diminutive Fei perches on a table, wrapping her 28-year-old frame seductively around her guitar and smouldering for the camera.
So how and where did it all begin? Fei is adamant that the guitar found her, rather than the other way round.
“I was seven years old when I started to play in primary school, but at that time, I didn’t really know what a guitar was. I was a hyper-energetic child, and my parents simply wanted me to learn any instrument to calm me down.” It was a fortuitous choice.
Fei points out that, in those days, the image of the guitar in China was still tainted by the events of the Cultural Revolution.
“It was regarded as a ‘hooligan’ instrument – some older Chinese people still believe that to be the case today,” she says. “By the time I was 10 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a professional musician, but my parents, who were both teachers, were very unhappy; they just couldn’t see how I could earn a living as a guitarist. It was a huge fight between my parents and me.”
To say that the guitar was a minority instrument in China 20 years ago would be understating the fact.
“I was the very first guitar student to enter any music school in China,” says Fei. “Luckily, my school teacher was also keen on the guitar, so special arrangements were made for my tuition.”
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Many of Fei’s fellow students, and even some of her teachers at the Central Conservatoire of Music in Beijing, looked down on the guitar in the mistaken belief that it wasn’t a serious instrument.
“I did feel isolated and a little inferior for a time. That made me really angry – but it also made me more determined to show them how beautiful my instrument was, so it actually made me stronger.”
Guitars may not command the sort of six-figure price tags normally associated with fine violins, but they still don’t come cheap, as Fei’s parents discovered.
“They had to save very hard to buy my first really good guitar, which cost them the same as an apartment. This had to be kept secret from my grandparents, who would definitely not have understood such extravagant expenditure on any instrument – let alone the ‘hooligan' guitar."
A seminal moment for Fei came when her father made a recording of John Williams playing on the radio. She was transfixed, and from that moment he became her role model. So imagine how it must have felt when, aged 17, she played for her idol in Beijing.
“In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I would ever meet John Williams, let alone get the opportunity to play in front of him.”
She admits to having an initial bout of nerves before becoming wrapped up in the music. She needn’t have worried; Williams was clearly impressed, so much so that he gave her his own instrument, built by the famous Australian guitar maker, Greg Smallman.
In 2000, Fei graduated from the Central Conservatoire Of Music with a Bachelor in classical guitar performance. Another life-changing experience followed when she became the first guitarist, as well as the first Chinese student, ever to receive a scholarship from London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she studied with Michael Lewin and John Mills. It was a move that she is very grateful for: “I am so lucky because I now live in London, but I also go back to China as often as I can.”
Returning to China plays an important part in her future plans for helping to promote guitar playing in her homeland. “I want to give as many concerts as possible in China, to encourage others to take up the guitar,” she says.
So how rapidly is China changing?
“It’s unbelievable! Even going back a few times a year, as I do, I am amazed by the pace of development.”
And she doesn’t just mean the high-rise buildings and industrial sprawl. “There is more and more interest in all types of western music, and the potential for developing greater appreciation of classical music is huge.”
And what does she like best about life in the UK? “London is such a wonderfully cultural city.”
And the worst thing? “You can’t get proper Peking duck here! What your Chinese restaurants call ‘crispy duck’ is not the same at all.”
Since we are in a Cantonese restaurant, there is little chance of finding Peking duck on the menu anyway, so we move on to talk about her debut CD for record label EMI. The album embraces some familiar Spanish pieces by composers such as Albéniz and Tárrega, as well as Stanley Myers’s popular Cavatina.
Fei makes no apologies for including what some might regard as “lollipops” among the tracks.
“I love all the music I play, and it really annoys me when I hear some guitarists saying they are fed up with playing these pieces. If you do not love the music, you should not play it,” she says.
Clearly she is a lady who doesn’t believe in going through the motions. In any event, the album is far from being entirely made up of well-known pieces; for example Yu-Xan Deng and Lin-Qui Li’s Spring Breeze, with its distinctly oriental feel, was a delightful discovery for me.
And what about her plans for the next album?
“It will be totally different. In fact, it may not contain any pieces people will recognise.”
Fei continues: "There are so many plucked instruments in China that people in the West have never even heard of. I would like to take some of the traditional music composed for these instruments and adapt it for the guitar.”
So, notwithstanding the absence of Peking duck, it seems that Xuefei Yang plans to stay in London. As we ponder the dessert menu, I ask her about the green tea ice cream.
“That I have never tried,” she laughs.
We order it, and are pleasantly surprised by the flavour. There is just time for a quick demonstration, after which she puts her beloved Greg Smallman guitar back into its well-travelled, if rather battered, case and hops into a taxi, leaving me feeling utterly charmed by this lively and unassuming starlet.