Born in Beijing, Xuefei Yang is one of the finest classical guitarists in the world today. Her prodigious musical talent has seen her dubbed “China’s Guitar Princess” in her homeland. Xuefei’s unquestionable virtuosity and commitment to her art have brought unrivalled success internationally. After studying at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, Xuefei became the first Chinese student to be awarded a full international scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music. As a professional musician, she has performed in 50 countries with concerts at many illustrious venues, including the Philharmonie Berlin, the Konzerthaus Vienna and Carnegie Hall in New York. Though Xuefei currently lives in London, KEF Connects caught up with the musical virtuoso at the Hong Kong offices of her record company to discuss the people, the music and the quest for excellence that inspire her.

You began playing in the early 1980s at the age of seven. Why the guitar? Who are the guitarists who have influenced your style?

I like to say that I didn’t choose the guitar; the guitar chose me. I was an energetic child, and my parents wanted me to learn an instrument to calm me down. They considered the accordion at first because that instrument was popular in China, but my school music teacher said the accordion would be too heavy and too loud. She was organising a guitar group and my parents just put me in. I didn’t even know what a guitar was. It was the start of my beautiful destiny.

There was no tradition of classical guitar when I was growing up in China, but my musical idol was [Australian classical guitarist] John Williams. Mainland China was only just opening up to the world, so we had only limited access to outside music. John Williams, Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream… they had many recordings, and my dad made copies of some CDs for me. John Williams became something of a mentor when I went to the UK, so he has been a major influence and a role model.

How much of classical guitar is precision and how much is passion?

Precision is important in classical music, but spontaneity is also essential. You cannot just follow the music on the paper – you have to put yourself in there, too; you have to find the balance between spontaneity and the composer’s intentions. Great artists are usually very individual and creative in approach. You listen and you immediately know who is playing. To be an outstanding musician you need good technique, but in the end it’s about conveying the music to the audience and moving them.  In short, to be a good guitar player requires precision, but to be a good musician requires passion.

What emotions are best expressed through classical guitar? What are the challenges in collaborating with other musicians?

Music is for expressing feelings, and I think classical guitar is the most intimate of instruments. When you listen to a classical guitarist, sitting up close, it’s so touching and there are sensitive nuances. It’s all about emotional intimacy.

In classical collaborations, which we call chamber music, everyone is equal. Of course, in chamber music it’s important to find the right musical partners. Two people can be great players, but if they don’t get along it will never work. It’s the same in life – when you meet new people, sometimes you hit it off straight away and become immediate friends; sometimes you don’t. Also, relationships evolve over time, which is rewarding. I love collaborations because the music becomes richer; there are more possibilities in the music you create together.

What do you listen to when it’s time to relax?

I never listen to my own recordings – that wouldn’t be relaxing at all. I like to listen to jazz. I like Brazilian music, like the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. The rhythms and harmonies can be quite complicated and interesting.

Have you ever considered branching away from classical music?

I’m devoted to classical guitar – It’s a never-ending journey of discovery. That said, I would like to learn some jazz. I would love to possess the skill of improvisation. I want to play good music on my instrument, regardless of the style.  I find that the guitar is very versatile in that way, which is really quite wonderful.

Do audiences differ greatly between countries?

They are very different. For example, I feel I can be braver in programming in Europe, as the audiences perhaps have the longest heritage of listening to classical music.  In America, people tend to be very open and welcoming and I have received standing ovations at almost all my concerts in the US. That would be rare in the UK, where audiences will only stand up for the true legends. In general, Asian audiences are more reserved, perhaps because Asian cultures are in general more that way. That said, audiences in Korea are particularly warm and act more like they are at a pop concert. Korean people are quite passionate.  Despite these surface differences, I believe that across cultures, people experience great enjoyment from music.  At the end of the day, music is listened to by individual people, and it is the effect it has on them as an individual person, rather than as a member of a country, that is most important.

What do you look for when choosing hi-fi equipment?

I’m one of those people who can enjoy listening to music on any kind of equipment. When you compare cheap and professional speakers next to each other, however, there is a big difference in clarity. For me personally, I like a warm sound, not a cold, clinical sound, and I want the feeling of being at a live performance. Regarding looks… well, I’m female and beauty is important to me, but it’s not number one. It’s like when choosing a guitar. Sound quality is definitely the most important thing. Good looks are great, but only if you can have both.

Ultimately, what does music mean to you? Please name a piece of music that holds special place in your heart.

I cannot imagine my life without music. It’s something about the human spirit; it’s food for the soul.

There are so many, and some pieces are in my blood, in my bones, such as the famous Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo, which I recorded.  I met the composer Rodrigo when I was 14, and that experience is intimately entwined with my experience and feelings for this beautiful piece.  You have to feel that you really know a piece before you record it, and it’s important to learn the background of a piece in classical music, to ensure your playing style is appropriate. It’s like when I play the English music of John Dowland from the 16th century. Learning the culture from the period – the painting, the architecture, the music, even the costumes – definitely helps me understand the style required to play the piece.

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