The innovative and indefatigable Xuefei Yang delighted an appreciative audience at the Boston Classical Guitar Society’s concert in the First Lutheran Church of Boston this past weekend. Yang had arrived in Boston just a few hours earlier, (she had played the prior night in NYC), yet looking refreshed, she charmed an audience that ranged from classical guitarists, rock musicians, elementary school students, classical music aficionados and others eager to hear this unusual instrumentalist—the first-ever guitarist from China to attend to a conservatory. A phenom since childhood (she began studying the guitar at age 7, a period shortly after the Cultural Revolution) and made her public performance debut at age 10. Australian guitarist John Williams upon first hearing her when she was that age immediately donated two guitars to Beijing’s Central Conservatoire so that Yang and other advanced students would have fine instruments on which to study. Since those early days, as well as creating innovative renditions of well-known classical guitar music, Yang has been singular in introducing Chinese melodies to that genre.
Sor’s Variations on a Theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute (Papageno’s Das klinget so herrlich, which Sor translated as O cara armonia) came first. Many consider this charming work to be a rite of passage for classical guitarists, but here, Yang delivered it sensitively and without fanfare. Next, she dispatched Bach’s 6-movement BWV 1009, the Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major (played in G, given translation to guitar), imparting precision with feeling. While one might argue that the cello suites work best on bowed instruments, this interpretation provided much to reconsider—a difference in tone quality and mood provided by the plucked instrument.
The guitarist’s own arrangement of Changjun Xu’s Sword Dance, first written for the four-string liuquin and based on an 8th-century poem by the revered Fu Du came across as almost-pictorial work, including many technical challenges —tremolo with concomitant chords, huge dynamic demands and intricate melodies—which Yang easily surmounted. It encapsulated the artist’s wish to share music from her own country, after having played so many works from elsewhere in the world. She has noted that, as there are so many plucked instruments in China, the classical guitar can serve as an apt medium for adaptation of the rich culture of Chinese music. Indeed, it seemed so in this recital.
During intermission a brisk sale of her CDs and much excited talk about the breadth of this charismatic musician took place. After the pause Yang presented a varied selection of South American offerings: Prelude No. 1 and Scottish Choro by Villa-Lobos, and Manhã de Carnaval by composer-guitarist Luiz Bonfá. Taking this signature theme from the movie “Black Orpheus,” as arranged by Brian Hodel and Baden Powell de Aquino, Yang’s further modifications added resonant vibrato and arpeggiated lyricism..
In Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Felicidade,” as arranged by Roland Dyens, Yang found a jazzy lilt. Then on to three works by Uruguayan composer Agostin Barrios Mangoré: “Maxixe,” a melodious Brazilian tango; “Julia Florida,” reflective and mellifluent; and the energetic “Danza Paraguaya,” which has improvisatory aspects that, as Yang has noted in her online commentary, Top Tips, characterize much of South American music, and certainly Mangoré’s.
The program ended with three small gems. Leo Brouwer’s “Berceuse” (Canción de Cuna), had an underpinning that provided a cradle’s rocking and a lovely melody. Emilio Pujol was a great Spanish classical guitarist, composer, and teacher with wide-ranging historical interests. His “Guajira” imparted the mood of a light Cubano peasant dance. Paco Peña’s “Colombiana” (or El Nuevo Día), made for an appropriately lively finale.
Yang went on to give two encores—one her own transcription of Chinese melodies. Following the concert she warmly greeted the public and signed CDs until well past 11 PM.
The unusual aspect of Yang’s Saturday evening concert, (she also gave a master class at Rivers School on Sunday) lies in her ability to combine multiple genres, perform with an improvisatory spirit, and engage with generosity. This artist has done much to expand the classical guitar repertoire, through amalgamating and expanding genres.
The BCGS sponsors concerts by many classical guitarists; David Russell will arrive on May 6th. There were hardly any empty seats on this cold night, and by the first week of May, getting a ticket could be difficult; I will reserve early.
Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.