Last night in Herbst Theatre, a solo performance by Chinese classical guitar virtuoso Xuefei Yang was given as the final concert in the 2016–2017 Guitar Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) in partnership with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. She prepared a program that began with Johann Sebastian Bach and then advanced through both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries for the first half, while devoting the second half to four major Brazilian composers, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Dilermando Reis, and Anibal Garoto. This was her sixth SFP appearance but my own first opportunity to listen to her. She clearly had faithful listeners in the audience, and their enthusiasm was always evident.
The Bach selection was the BWV 995 G minor lute suite, which is a transcription of the BWV 1011 solo cello suite in C minor. Yang played a seven-string instrument, whose added string accommodated the lowest pitches that Bach had written for the lute. The title page in Bach’s hand indicates that the music was written for “Monsieur Schouster;” and Nicholas Anderson’s booklet notes for the Teldec Bach 2000 release suggest that the piece may have been the result of a commission. Anderson places composition early in Bach’s time in Leipzig, giving the window between 1727 and 1731.
Due to its origins in BWV 1011, this is music that is familiar to most Bach lovers. However, between Bach’s transcription and Yang’s interpretation, there was nothing about last night’s performance that made one miss the cello. Yang clearly knew how to endow each of the dance movements with its own individual character; and, if her tempo choices did not always reflect what we think we know about how those dances were executed, this had more to do with accommodating the limitations of her instrument than with “historical fidelity.” (Playing this music on the lute would have involved similar tempo problems.) Most importantly, there was a clarity to her shaping of every phrase that never compromised Bach’s spirit; and that clarity was particularly impressive in her command of the fugue that constitutes the second half of the opening movement.
Yang then moved to the very beginning of the nineteenth century. Niccolò Paganini composed his three-movement A major “Grande Sonata” between 1803 and 1804, making it one of his earliest multiple-movement compositions (one of his earliest compositions, for that matter). While Paganini was best known as a violin virtuoso, his guitar skills were also impressive; and he wrote this sonata to be played as a solo by either instrument. This meant that much of the virtuosity involved elaborate finger-work; and Yang’s command of that virtuosity could not be faulted. She also endowed the entire sonata with a comfortable sense of pace, allowing listeners to appreciate many of Paganini’s virtues as a composer before his concertos moved him in the direction of more long-winded discourse.
Yang’s twentieth-century selection was the “Sword Dance,” composed for liuqin (a relatively small four-stringed Chinese instrument reminiscent of the mandolin) by Xu Changjun when he was still a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Yang prepared her own guitar arrangement of this piece. She also explained to the audience (without going into any great detail) that the music is based on an ancient Chinese poem.
The Brazilian half of the program opened with three pieces in choro style by Heitor Villa-Lobos (not to be confused with his Chôros series of fourteen compositions for different combinations of instruments and voices). The choro itself is simply a Brazilian popular music genre; and Yang’s Villa-Lobos selections, taken from his Suite populaire brésillienne, adapted that genre to the nineteenth-century dances forms of the mazurka, the waltz, and the schottische. This was followed by the three Reis selections, each a realization of a well-chosen poetic title.
The three Jobim selections were all arrangements, the first two by Raphael Rabello, and the last, “A Felicidade,” one of the best representatives of his bossa nova style, by Roland Dyens. The concluding Garoto selections were also arrangements, although the arrangers were not credited on the program sheet. Yang’s two encores were also Brazilian, João Pernambuco’s “Interrogando” and Luis Bonfá’s “Manhã de Carnaval,” which was made famous by its inclusion in the film Black Orpheus. (For the record, “A Felicidade” was also used in that film.)
All of Yang’s Brazilian selections were given a light touch and low-key rhetoric. Her preference for a subdued style tended to enhance the intimate qualities of the music itself. This was a striking contrast to the usual flashy preconceptions of Brazil; but, in a space with the affordances of Herbst, her approach was strikingly effective.