Xuefei Yang at Subculture

This piece is reposted from NYC Aesthetic.

Classical guitarist Xuefei Yang (Fei) played a solo recital at SubCulture on Bleeker Sreet last night as part of the 92Y’s programming branch to the downtown scene. Fei seemed pleased to be in such a “cool” place, having played in palaces and concert halls throughout the world, she noted the intimate, club feel. But it was the superb acoustics of the underground space that was the highlight, as the accomplished guitarist took us on a musical journey from the 1600’s to the present.

Recognized as a prodigy at the tender age of ten, at her first public performance in Spain, Fei continued to impress the best in her field. Australian classical guitarist, John Williams, was so taken by Fei’s talent that he donated two guitars for her evolving practice.

Early on, Fei’s parents realized that she was an active child and attempted to temper her with music, first with the accordion, and then, the more subtle guitar. No doubt, the instrument blossomed in her hand. As the artist says herself, “I did not choose the guitar, the guitar chose me.” She went on to solidify a foundation in classical western tradition at The Royal Academy of Music in London where she now holds a fellowship.

The guitar in China before the Cultural Revolution had a lowly status, it was in fact deemed a vagabond’s instrument. XueFei’s great accomplishments have recast that perception. She is the first Chinese guitarist to launch an international career.

The evening’s performance began with Courtly Dances from Benjamin Britten’s opera “Gloriana” as arranged by Fei. A lively “March” ran into the “Coranto” before resting on the stately two beat rhythm in the “Pavane”, where I envisioned a snake being charmed out its basket. An English folk dance came before “Galliard” and the risqué “La Volta”, two Italian Renaissance dances featuring the demanding cinque passi or five-step. All handled beautifully.

Fei expressed an affinity for the prolific composer Franz Schubert in the following arrangement of “Six Schubertian Songs,” by Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856), a Hungarian guitarist and composer. Austrian elegance rang clear throughout, particularly in the dreamy sweet talk of “Das Fishermadchen,” and the virtuosic ending of “Die Post”.

A certain sadness marked the introduction of Britten’s, “Nocturnal after John Dowland.” Fei explained that Dowland was an insomniac who found himself caught between light and the dark of sleep, a measured sense of hopelessness indeed. The works were both challenging for the performer and the listener. One could hear the full range of dynamics in Fei’s masterful touch as she explored the emotional wandering of sleep deprivation.

The US Premiere of Chen Li’s, “Shuo Chang”, followed intermission. The work had a very different form then the earlier pieces. This group of folk songs and dances had me wanting to stomp my feet. It was very moving. One could sense Fei’s attachment to the composition and her homeland.

The English composer William Walton’s bagatelles were next. Bagatelles are small, light pieces, typically for the piano, the best known being Fur Elise, by Beethoven. The opening piece was a a fast, bright Allegro, transitioned nicely into the slow tempo of the Lento. The sweet chords of “Alla Cubana” again showed off Fei’s technique and dynamics. “Con Slancio” concluded the series with a surging exposition and spirited ending.

For the last part of the program, a peppery Sonata by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), that featured some interesting contrasting and percussive elements. Essentially a love song, this Sonata had the spice of magic realism so familiar to Latin America.

Xuefei’s spirit seems connected with all forms of music. Her classical roots serves her well wherever she travels musically. The artist finds a connection between Madrid and Beijing, being on the same latitudinal line. Fei realized she had not played anything of Spanish origin during the night’s performance and remedied this with a stunning Memories of Alhambra for an encore. The consistency of her tone and very skilful tremolo technique was breathtaking.

Xuefei Yang may shun the notion of pioneer but it is clear that she is on a mission to broaden the repertoire of classical music on guitar. She strikes me more as a rebel than a pioneer, as she pushes the boundary of the instrument further. In her hands it can surely take on many forms.

JSB

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