From the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON

When 22-year-old French guitarist Thibaut Garcia strides onto the stage of the concert hall at Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado, for an afternoon recital at the Guitar Foundation of America’s annual convention, he has a spring in his step and seems to be brimming with confidence. And when the first-prize winner of the 2015 GFA competition in Oklahoma City jumps right into late-Baroque composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss’ six-movement Sonata no. 29 in A minor (“L’infidéle”) for lute, beautifully negotiating the piece’s many moods and tempos, it is clear that Garcia’s self-assurance is well-placed. At the conclusion of the work, the nearly full hall explodes with enthusiastic applause.

As he traverses several similarly challenging, thoughtful, and thematically varied pieces over the next 45 minutes, a relaxed but focused Garcia continues to show why he has been widely hailed as one of the most promising young contemporary guitarists. Aire Vasco, by Spanish composer Antonio Jiménez Manjón (1866–1919; he was a major inspiration to Miguel Llobet) feels deep and expressive. He makes a change in the program to accommodate two of Llobet’s charming Canciones Populare Catalonas—“El testament d’Amèlia” and “El noi de la Mare.” Joaquín Rodrigo’s darkly powerful homage to Manuel de Falla, Invocación y Danza (premiered by Alirio Diaz in 1961), can be daunting to even the best guitarists, with its bracing mixture of harmonics, big chords, tremolo passages, and contrasting traditional-Spanish and modern textures, but Garcia makes it all sound effortless.

The set’s real tour de force, though, is the concluding suite by Astor Piazzolla, Las 4 Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). Garcia elects to start with “Otoño Porteño” (“Autumn,” listed third in the program) with its jumping nuevo tango–ish figure, and then proceeds with “Invierno” (“Winter”; it’s the quietest and most balladic of the four), followed by “Primavera” (“Spring”) and “Verano” (“Summer”)—the last two clearly related in approach and sound to “Otoño.” All four sections feature interesting rhythm and tempo shifts, as well as sonorous lyrical passages and contrasting moments of brooding intensity and/or sensuality. Garcia handles the piece’s varying shades with great skill and sensitivity, and he is rewarded at the end with a thunderous standing ovation.

The following afternoon, Garcia and I meet in the concert hall’s hospitality area, at the close of his day judging the juniors competition. I ask him how playing a concert at GFA compares to being in the competition the previous year. “Competitions always are difficult because even if you’re enjoying yourself onstage, you’re being judged,” the young Frenchman replies. “Yesterday was much more comfortable for me. It was a great audience and I felt welcomed; I really enjoyed it!”

Garcia doesn’t play as many competitions as some—“one or two a year, max”—choosing his spots carefully, based in part of the required repertoire and the amount of freedom that the contestants are allowed. Even in competitions, though, Garcia tries to “treat it like a performance. The first prize [at GFA] is something like 50 or 60 concerts [an extensive tour of the U.S. and Canada the following year, organized by GFA] so you must be a concertiste. And you don’t become a concertiste the day after your first prize; you should be one before it.

“I don’t change the way I play for the judges,” he continues. “I believe that if I’m convinced by what I do, other people will be convinced, too. If I do things just to make the judges like me, but I’m not convinced, it won’t work. I want the jury and the public to like me for what I am. I always try to play natural.

“Juries are very complicated to understand. I’ve participated in three juries and each time it’s been a different experience. But one thing I’ve seen is that the man or woman who has some personality and gives us that—that’s interesting. That is what we’re looking for. Not just for someone who doesn’t make any mistakes. Of course you must play well, but we want someone who does something convincing and is musical.”

Garcia grew up in Toulouse, in southwestern France, the son of a French mother and a father with a Spanish heritage. “My father played the guitar as an amateur, and my mother loved music, too,” Garcia says. “My father is passionate about the guitar and he loved Julian Bream, Presti-Lagoya, and John Williams, so before playing the guitar, I heard recordings. I liked them very much and I loved hearing my father play—he would play [Isaac Albéniz’s] Asturias, [Agustín Barrios’] La Catedral, Villa-Lobos.

So I asked them to teach me but they couldn’t because they didn’t know how to teach, so finally I went to a little music school. I remember the first year, when the teacher gave me one little piece—two lines—I played the three, four, five lines after it. I liked to play on my own. No one told me, ‘You must do this, you must do that.’ I wanted to do things on my own.

“I remember the Pujol method; I made all the scales with each finger—this week it’s i m, next week it’s m a; it was a very traditional approach, but good. I played Gaspar Sanz music, Villa-Lobos; also very traditional. Later on, after I really discovered the big world of the guitar, I found new pieces. But I still like a lot of the old guitarists. Like [French guitar legend] Ida Presti—when you hear recordings of her when she was 13, she sounds like she was 40. It’s awesome; it inspires me so much!”

Beginning at age seven, Garcia studied chamber music and classical guitar and by the time he was 16 he had migrated north to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP), studying with Olivier Chassain and earning his Bachelor of Arts with honors. Soon after, he started entering major competitions, notching several victories in Spain, as well as ones in Germany and Romania. Much of Garcia’s repertoire is Spanish or at least Spanish-influenced, yet he says, “I feel French totally, but there is something of Spain in me because of my father and also because Spain welcomed me even more than France at the beginning. My first concerts were in Spain, and I play there almost every year. But I don’t think because you’re from Spain or Spanish you play better Spanish music than other musicians do. Even where I’m from in France there is much Spanish influence. There’s an expression: ‘The bull of Spain put his horn in the south of France, in Toulouse.’ A lot of Spanish [people] came to the south of France to escape [Spanish dictator] Franco, and there are flamenco festivals and some Spanish food.”

Garcia’s newly released CD, Leyendas (“Legends”), on Warner Classics’ Erato imprint, consists entirely of Spanish and South American repertoire. Three of the pieces he played at the GFA concert—the Piazzolla, the Manjon, and the Rodrigo—are joined by a pair of classical-guitar repertoire warhorses—Albeniz’s Asturias and Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra—and the less-played (but still popular) Sevilla by Tárrega and Falla’s Siete canciones populares españiolas (on which Garcia is joined by cellist Edgar Moreau, an Erato labelmate).

“I wanted the album to be full of energy, sun, emotion, and tenderness, exploring the repertoire that has nourished me from an early age,” Garcia said in a publicity release about the album. “Most of the repertoire on the album evokes places in which I have travelled extensively—from Seville and Granada to Buenos Aires, by way of the Basque country and the Asturias. That enables me to bring a personal character to each piece, as if every page were part of my travel diary.”

Thibaut Garcia is going to have a lot more travel destinations to put in that mental diary. At press time, beginning September 10 and going through the end of March 2017, he was scheduled to play around 50 concerts and 20 master classes in 22 states in the US, several Canadian provinces, and one-shots in Paris and Mexico along the way. And then?

“I’d like to do some more Bach,” he tells me. “I’m thinking about doing The Goldberg Variations with two guitars. [Garcia sometimes plays in a duo with Antoine Mornière.] I’d like to do the Italian Concerto, the Six Suites for Cello, the six for keyboards. I love that music—cello, violin, harpsichord. There is so much to discover.” And he is just at the beginning of his career.

Thibaut Garcia Paulino Bernabe II Guitar Classical Guitar Magazine

WHAT HE PLAYS

Thibaut Garcia plays a German spruce and rosewood Especial model guitar made by Madrid luthier Paulino Bernabe II.

“His father made guitars for Narciso Yepes, including a 10-string, and for Alexandre Lagoya, and he is keeping the tradition,” Garcia says. “I bought a guitar from him in 2009, and last year I met him in Sevilla. He told me that he liked how I play and he said he would make me a new guitar. So this one I’m playing now is a new Bernabe that I’ve had for seven months and I’m really happy with it. It’s very colorful-sounding.”