Review: Xuefei Yang

By: Richard Fong

Looking resplendent in a champagne colored one shouldered floor length gown, Ms. Yang opened with a knock-out performance of the Lute Partita. From the opening figure she was in total control. Her Bach was excellently paced and phrased. I was particularly impressed with her separation of the voices in the countrapuntal passages. She articulated the ornaments in the Loure a bit differently than I’d heard in the past (my reference point being John Williams’ recording), but it was very moving and effective.

I wasn’t at all familiar with either Regondi or his Reverie, but I’m going to seek out a recording straight off. What an amazing piece. According to the program, Regondi was a prodigy known as the “Infant Paganini” but after his death his compositions were regarded as too diffiult and faded into obscurity. That didn’t phase Ms. Yang. The opening section sounds like it could have been written by Liszt, with an assist from Chopin. The second section, which the notes said might well have been the first guitar composition using tremolo, was simply gorgeous, a melody evoking a Venetian Gondolier’s song. Her tremolo was stunning, providing a shimmering melody over a wandering bass line.

She then played the Brouwer Sonata, which she’d originally planned for the second half. This piece is to me just plain fun to listen to, and she looked like she was just plain having fun playing it. There are not a lot of melodies you end up humming to yourself afterwards, but it leaves you thinking a bit about the guitar and it’s possibilities. This actually brought the subject of her guitar to mind. Was it the hall, her playing, or the guitar itself—a Smallman I believe—but I felt here she could have used more volume from the bass.

The second half of the program began with with Stephen Goss’ “The Chinese Garden,” a suite of four pieces based on traditional Chinese folk themes. Last time she was in Seattle, Ms. Yang played some different Goss compositions—then introduced him–he was sitting in the back of the Hall. Being of Chinese descent, I’ve long enjoyed hearing ethnic folk themes transcribed for the guitar. These pieces, which are on her “40 Degrees North” CD, are effective showpieces, with numerous charming tunes coming and going throughout.

Next up was the Albeniz suite, which, like the Suite Espanola, paints a number of contrasting pictures of different scenes from Spain. The highlights for me were a powerful Malaguena, and an evocative Caprichio Catalan.

She closed the program with a Tarrega’s Carnival of Venice. It’s an engaging crowd pleaser, but seems to me to be a bit like just Tarrega screwing around and showing off how many different ways he can twist a simple theme around. Still, the piece is fun to listen to, but even more fun to watch a great player perform.

Ms. Yang played two encores. The first, a piece I was hoping to hear, was her transcription of the “Yi Dance.” The Yi tribe is one of China’s ethnic minorities. The first time I heard this theme it was played by a pipa player in Isaac Stern’s excellent documentary “From Mao to Mozart,” circa late 70’s. Yang’s transcription covers a lot of ground, literally, always coming back to the haunting main theme.

The second was Gerald Garcia’s arrangement of another catchy Chinese folk tune, “Plum Blossoms in the Snow,” another piece she clearly had a great time playing. I’m struck by two things: First, how much Chinese folk tunes arranged for the guitar sound like they’d fit right in with American west, frontier type movies, and second, that they’ve been so beautifully transcribed or composed for guitar by amongst others, Stephen Goss (Welsh), Dietmar Ungerrank (Austrian) and Gerald Garcia (Hong Kong born, educated and living in Oxford).

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