Another person whom I have known for age, Kenneth has been on the Hong Kong guitar scene for as long as I can remember. He is professor of guitar at Guangzhou Conservatoire and also a stand up comedian (are they the same?).
He is also an avid traveller in China and seems to know much of what goes on there.
This is an interview I held with him in one of the many coffee shops we frequent in Hong Kong, where he talks about China, teaching and life…
Find out more on his Facebook page
This is what he has to say about himself:
Kenneth Kwan is considered a comic’s comic’s comic, since nobody but comics may understand his jokes, and that’s when they’re drunk. He’s a musician and full-time womanizer, that is, he tries to help women become more woman by helping with chores behind the backs of their spouses, so that a woman can one day be womanizest (they don’t call him a comic’s comic’s comic for nothing).
Here’s what famous comedians have to say about Kenneth: Seinfeld: “Kenneth who?” Johnny Carson through a medium: “For someone who has absolutely no talents, Kenneth sure tries hard…even though nobody laughs, the world is better because of this!”
Su Meng is famously a Chinese guitarist who studies and plays in the USA, as a soloist, in a duo (the Beijing Duo) with her compatriot Wang Yameng (whom John Williams and I met on our Chinese tour in 1995) and in a trio with her teacher, Manuel Barrueco.
In 2002, Meng Su won first prize in the 5th Vienna International Guitar Competition.
in 2005, she garnered first prize in the 48th Tokyo International Guitar Competition.
In 2006, she was the winner of the first Parkening Young Guitarist Competition.
in 2006, she was the winner of the first Iserlohn Guitarist Competition.
in 2014, Meng Su received the Maryland State Art Council’s Individual Artist Award in Classical Solo Performance!
in 2015, she was the winner of the fourth Parkening Guitar Competition.
I was lucky enough to catch her on my latest visit to Hong Kong just after she had won the prestigious Parkening Competition for the second time (the first time was as a junior) and we managed to have a brief conversation about practice, competitions and living in the USA.
There interview took place in the studio of my old friend Wong Yik Hung.
This piece is one of a set of three Chinese pieces which the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet asked me to write on hearing the news that they were to visit China in 2008.
“Spring Snow” is a traditional pipa solo (the pipa is a plucked instrument which ended up in China, having begun its journey in the Middle East) from the 14th century and is almost monothematic in structure, with an obsessive four bar riff which branches out in many directions later on in the piece.
I have turned it into a chamber work by adding several sections and elongating others as well as introducing a percussive element which is implied in the original. The work requires extensive use of pipa techniques such as tremolo, crossed string percussive effects and heavy string bending.
The first performance of this piece was dedicated to Prof Chen Zhi of Central Conservatoire, Beijing.
LAGQ have since performed it many times as part of their “World set” this season.
Bill Kanengiser has also arranged some of this on solo guitar.
Many thanks to Alberto Cuellar, whom I met in Shanghai – a Flamenco guitarist and cool guy who also runs a website in Chinese dedicated to the guitar. This is slightly strange, my interview in English, translated into Chinese answered in Chinese, but with Chinese subtitles!
It was back to Chengdu last month to teach some of Professor Xu Bao’s students. This was a special trip because I was also the CD producer for Kuang Junhong’s first CD (at the age of 14). He really is something, and I hope you will enjoy the CD when it is released by Naxos.
There is a youthful optimism about his playing, but there is also the odd touch of masterful genius which comes through. Needless to say, his technique is flawless.
As he is very dedicated, I am sure he will mature into a wonderful musician.
His teacher says that to play an instrument well, you have to be first and foremost a good human being, with heart. (The other thing he says is that his students should have experience with other teachers and to this end he has invited many teachers from the West at his own expense, so that his students can absorb as many influences as they can).
It was very cold in the Main Concert Hall of Sichuan Conservatory, which was having a lift shaft installed during the day (and there are also 900 practice rooms all around making a Babelicious cacophony), so we had to record until late at night. It amazed me how many people were out on the street still eating at 4.00 am!
Junhong was the ideal person to record – he was always on the ball musically, and could intelligently work out edit points where necessary. There were a few pieces which were recorded as whole takes, and he can instantly absorb a musical or technical nuance.
During the day, we had lessons on the pieces, including his (by now famous) Chaconne by Bach. There was also Tedesco, Granados, Albeniz, Legnani and Mertz.
Junhong’s Chaconne at Iserlohn International Festival
What was unusual about the evenings was that I also recorded another guitarist consecutively – Chengbin from Shanghai, who has not made a CD before although he is quite a bit older than Junhong. His background is in Chinese Opera and he is a very instinctive and lively player. His CD was entirely of Brouwer, made for the sponsor of the recordings, Altamira.
Both players used Altamira guitars exclusively for their CDs.
Xu Bao and Chengbin outside the shop
Lu, GG, Junhong in the studio
We managed to finish the two CDs – done, dusted and edited in five days, with discussions and lessons on the pieces during the day as well as lessons for another 10 or so students.
So no time to see the pandas on this occasion, then!
Luckily we still had time to eat, although breakfast was a bit hazy after finishing regularly at 4.00-5.00am.
None of this would have been possible if I had not had a fine recording engineer with musical (and English) knowledge, who was so easy to work with it seemed that I was editing the CD directly.
His name is Lü Xin Long and it is worth keeping an eye out for his name, as he seems to be doing a lot of work at the moment in conjunction with the Chengdu YunTian Culture Communication Co.Ltd. On the final edit for Chengbin, he stayed up all night to master the CD so i could take it to Hanson Yao of Altamira when I went to Hong Kong the next morning.
Junhong, Lu Xin Long and Xu Bao
I also met another Chengdu kid to look out for – 11 year old Huang Yuexuan, who is extremely studious and serious about the guitar and also a bit of a laugh. His daily fare seems to be Villa Lobos Etudes 1 and 2, Bach Lute Suite 4 and Barrios Sueno en La Floresta. I would say he probably should get out more, but he does sometimes have to practise outside Xu Bao’s shop, which is in a leafy boulevard lined with instrument sellers and (for some unknown reason) hairdressers.
Xu Bao’s 200 or so students are divided between him and 4 or 5 other teachers, all ex students of his and it is all very hierarchical, but relaxed. We drank a lot of tea outside, mainly at dusk. Everyone was very respectful, hospitable and hard working. I felt very well looked after.
Huang YueXuan in the middle
Huang YueXuan doing a bit of casual practice in the lunch hour
Villa Lobos Etude 2 with a new fingering
You can listen to the interview I managed to snatch with Xu Bao during lunch just before leaving for the airport.
The next couple of days were spent in Hong Kong with Hanson Yao in his new guitar shop, with my friend and writer Jane Ram, and with my sister in law visiting from California and my 92 year old mother, but that is another story.
I had a wonderful time despite hard work and lack of sleep. Everyone was hospitable in a relaxed and human way. and I hope to return to Chengdu soon. It was great fun. Thank you all, especially Xu Bao, Hanson, Yang Yang, Zhu Re and of course the two artists, Junhong and Chengbin.
Maybe next time, I will get to see some pandas!
While in Chengdu this time, I managed to grab a quick interview with guitar professor, Xu Bao and asked him about his teaching at Sichuan Conservatoire, the repertoire he uses, the role of a teacher, sponsors and Kuang Junhong.
Having spent some time with child prodigy guitarists in China, the following article in the Spectatorstruck a resonant chord with me – probably putting a strain on my own sense of loyalty as well as East-West relationships! NYGE is also no stranger to the Yehudi Menuhin School (which has a similar background ethos to the Menuhin Test). As well as using the school for our courses and concerts, we have also had talented musicians from its students.
‘The truth is,’ says Gordon Back (the legendary accompanist for Yehudi Menuhin) , lowering his voice, ‘that if the violin finalists from the BBC Young Musician of the Year were to enter the Menuhin Competition, they wouldn’t make it to the first round.’ Not through the first round, note, but to the first round: they wouldn’t be good enough to compete.
Back is artistic director of the Menuhin, held every two years in a different country. In effect, it’s a search for the next Yehudi Menuhin, who recorded the Elgar concerto with the composer at the age of 15.
Contentious words and I often wonder about why Eastern musicians have taken so readily to Western classical music. It isn’t a question of lack of cultural background either.
I knew it had come from some soap opera or a film, and thanks to Nigel Warburton via @teobesta here is the original use of the piece! (Probably a bit steamy if you are a music teacher!)
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By paving the way and becoming an international star, Fei has become a role model in her native China. “Lots of young people [in China] see me having a good career, and I hope that I can make them realise that the guitar is a beautiful instrument.” Her passion for what she does is contagious. She speaks about the classical guitar and its music with the knowledge and experience of a veteran, yet with the enthusiasm and vigour of one who has just begun playing. “Personally, I always believed that the guitar the most well-rounded and self-entertaining instrument. It is so personal and intimate, as you have to hold a guitar with your body and to your heart.”
It was an exciting occasion – the world premier of the first two movements of my concerto “China Sings” – Kuang Junhong played with great delicacy and fiery virtuosity, and the orchestra was superb. Watch this space for all three movements with symphony orchestra.