Back in Bach

Xuefei Yang transcribes the Baroque master’s concertos for classical guitar

The eight-hour time difference makes it tough for this late-night music writer to rise and shine. When I succeed in getting renowned EMI Classics recording artist Xuefei Yang on the phone, I’m sipping coffee at dawn while the classical guitarist is already in for the evening at her home in Birmingham, England.

“My favorite band hails from Birmingham,” I say. “Black Sabbath.”

“Wait, you’re a rock critic?” she says.

Of course I am. And I’m eager to interview Yang because I’m a fan. Yang tears up the guitar in a way not far removed from Eddie Van Halen. And she rolls with this observation, laughing at my icebreaker: Has she considered recording a metal CD?

“I don’t know if I’ll have time,” Yang says. “The classical repertoire is so vast that exhausting it is impossible.”

Anything’s possible, though, including the idea that a young woman from China, which until recently had no tradition of guitar-playing, would develop into an elite, best-selling classical musician. Yang was always a wild child. At 3, she startled her family by rowdily dancing to folk music, catapulting herself off her bed and crashing to the floor. Her schoolteacher parents sought to “tame” her with music lessons. But the accordion, a popular instrument in China in the late ’70s, didn’t appeal to Yang.

“When my parents heard my music teacher was organizing a guitar class, they asked if I could join,” Yang says. “It was the first and only guitar group in the country. We learned a few American folk songs, but sang them, quietly, in Chinese.”

Like many families born after the Cultural Revolution, the Yangs didn’t have access to good classical recordings or concerts. They lived in Beijing—four people crowded into a one-room apartment. Still, at an early age Yang understood that music could be a career. After playing a guitar festival at age 10, pros took notice. Australian master John Williams gave her a Greg Smallman guitar. Yang still plays that guitar as she will during her upcoming solo recital at UNLV.

“The Smallman is powerful,” she says. “I play with orchestras in 2,000-seat venues, so I need volume, power.”

There’s plenty of both in her new CD, Bach Concertos, which features her own transcriptions of music by German Baroque overlord Johann Sebastian Bach. Throughout the disc, Yang is accompanied by England’s Elias String Quartet.

“I’ve always admired Bach and consider him the greatest Baroque composer,” Yang says. “Problem is, he never wrote for guitar!”

But Bach did compose for the guitar’s close relative, the lute, and its distant relative, the harpsichord. After studying the composer’s works that rely on these instruments, Yang took what she learned and applied it to his violin concertos.

“The sound of the harpsichord is short; as soon as you pluck it, it dies, much like the guitar.”

Listening to Bach Concertos, you wouldn’t know the concertos weren’t written for guitar. Still, it was a challenge.

“His Concerto in D minor made me cry. The notes hit so fast, there’s no sustain, and it’s a monster to transcribe.”

Ultimately, the beauty tamed the Bach. Speaking of, there’s something else different about Yang’s new album. Unlike previous covers, Yang, 34, doesn’t pose like a supermodel this time. Promoters used to tell Yang her label was selling a pretty face, not a great player. No more, though.

“Art perseveres. We went with a thoughtful picture this time because it’s what Bach’s music deserves.”

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