Making his way around the recently trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood, his new place of employment at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) nearby, Judicaël Perroy seems to have succeeded in transplanting himself and his career from his native Paris. His solid physique and dark, tightly curled hair might place him at younger than his 44 years, and he expresses himself with the vitality that’s been characteristic ever since his start as a child prodigy on guitar, performing Vivaldi concertos with full orchestra in Le Mans, France. On his way back to the Conservatory from our first interview in a café, Perroy stops to chat in French with a visiting fellow expatriate, now a piano teacher in Cleveland, and offers a light to a fellow smoker, commenting that this is what he’s metaphorically hoping to accomplish with his first semester of guitar students at the Conservatory: to light their fires. All the while, he never stops talking, in charming French-accented English, his gusto matching what we hear on his recordings across a broad repertoire, from Bach to Piazzolla to Takemitsu.
The son of an amateur musician, Perroy enrolled at age seven in the Paris Academy of Music, and taught himself on his father’s guitar. At ten he entered the National School Academy of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where he attracted the attention of several prominent French guitar teachers. He placed second in the International Competition of the Ile-de-France in 1988, graduated summa cum laude from the Academy, and went on to further private study. Having won top prizes at other competitions and institutions, Perroy was flown to La Jolla, California, in 1997, where he placed first in the Guitar Foundation of America’s (GFA) International Concert Artist Competition (ICAC) and was awarded a 60-city tour of North America, which brought him to San Francisco for the first time and also gained him a post at Stetson University in central Florida.
Perroy’s recordings have included two duets—with flute and with harp—for Bayard Musique, and transcriptions of Bach for Naxos. In France, before taking the SFCM post, Perroy taught both children and adults at several conservatories, with some of his students going on to win their own competitions. Following their teacher to victories in the ICAC were Thomas Viloteau (2006), Gabriel Bianco (2008), Florian Larousse (2009), Thibaut Garcia (2015), and Xavier Jara (2016)—an impressive roster. Perroy’s latest album, Paris une solitude peuplée, (Constrastes Records, 2016), includes five pieces by Villa-Lobos, and he’s planning, with his Belarusian guitarist wife Natalia Lipnitskaya, to record transcriptions of Russian orchestral music. I spoke twice with Perroy, first just after his arrival in San Francisco, and again near the conclusion of his first semester of teaching there.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: How has guitar teaching changed, within your own experience of it?
JUDICAËL PERROY:My father, Thomas, began by teaching himself classical guitar after he heard John Williams perform in Paris. He didn’t know what to expect, because he was a security guard and he didn’t come from a family where people listened to classical music. He’d started on guitar with pop songs. And when I started studying, at the beginning of the ’80s, there were a lot of classical guitar teachers who were not themselves classical guitarists; they played electric guitar in bals populaires [local dances]. Now you have all these good players who are my age, teaching in conservatories and in private studios.
CG: How did you manage to find good teachers when you were coming up?
PERROY: My father discovered that I needed a teacher who could help me more than the conservatory teacher I had, and that’s why he decided to go to a Roberto Aussel concert. Roberto heard me, and later, with his former wife, Delia Estrada, gave me some classes over three years. I come from a very poor family, so he gave the lessons for free.
CG: Both of them were from Argentina; did they transmit any of that to you?
PERROY: At that time, Aussel was just beginning to play a Piazzolla piece for guitar, and I guess he recorded that in ’83 or ’84, so I was able to listen to that kind of music. There were a lot of Argentinians in Paris who had left their country for political reasons, so I had many opportunities. Then I had a third teacher, Raymond Gratien, and I would say he was my main teacher.
CG: Did you want to expand your classical repertoire?
PERROY: At 14, I started to fall in love with classical music—not just the guitar, but also the piano. Of the piano players, I preferred Sviatoslav Richter, Maurizio Pollini, and Alfred Brendel.
CG: Richter showed maybe some of the same enthusiasm you do.
PERROY: I wish I had one percent of that! I have a lot of that music on my hard disc—or my heart disc.
CG: Had you always thought of being a professional musician?
PERROY: I didn’t think I would do concerts. I was very interested in being a journalist or a sociologist. I did mathematics and economics, and during two years, from age 17 to 19, I totally stopped playing the guitar. Then I restarted, and won a competition. For the GFA competition, if they hadn’t given me a scholarship, I wouldn’t have gone. French people stay a lot in France; we don’t get noticed enough abroad. I had no idea it was an important competition, but I did it, and it worked fine.
CG: What do you think about competitions now that you’re a judge yourself?
PERROY:I will say something very pretentious, which is that I prefer it’s me who’s judging.
CG: Because you think your view of the guitar is special?
PERROY: Yeah! The guitar, as a classical instrument, is very fragile, because its image is very linked with pop music. So what I want to promote as a judge is that people play music that is really part of the classical music world, not the weaker crossover things . . . which are not really good for a jazz player and not really good for a classical player.
CG: What about older versus newer material?
PERROY: I like it when there is a mix, with pieces that are not overplayed, like new pieces. For a long time, the guitar repertoire was very limited, but it became much bigger. To me, it’s very important in competitions that I hear the identity of the player, with his or her choice of program.
Below, Perroy plays part of Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 2:
CG: Does France have a different approach to classical pedagogy, and to guitar in particular?
PERROY: The huge difference is, each city [in France] has a conservatory, where kids can go for free, or for a [nominal] fee. In Paris, there are 18 conservatories, one for each district, each with two or three guitar teachers. It’s paid for by taxes, of course.
CG: There, your government supports music education; here not so much.
PERROY: Our system has some very good aspects and some not so good. In France, we all start with classical, and it’s not a question of money if you want your kid to have some music. In the U.S., there are a lot of kids who do guitar or band, and then when they are 17 or 18, they decide to do classical. The bad thing, of course, is that people in France are more used to having everything done by the state.
CG: How is it for performers and teachers in France?
PERROY: I play ten times more in the United States, because you have all those guitar societies. In France, if you are not famous, you don’t have many places to play, because nobody would organize that, because they wait for support from the state. The guitar scene is not mainstream enough to have really big support from the government.
CG: What do you like most about teaching?
PERROY: The personal relationships, with older students and kids.
CG: I would think how you were able to overcome financial challenges as a kid might inspire students from families further down in the economy.
PERROY: With musicians, it’s risky. A lot of American students have to work in a café, or whatever, to make a living. In France, they can all teach. One of the things that made me decide on San Francisco—which is a very expensive city—was the feeling that the SFCM will really help the students.
CG: How else do you help them, personally?
PERROY: I try to help them find what they want to do, not show that the way to be successful as a musician is to win the first prize.
CG: Are the possibilities better or worse for classical guitarists now?
PERROY: They’re better. But there are more people.
CG: More competition?
CG: In what ways better?
PERROY: There are more concerts, more places where we can play, new markets in places like China, that were totally out before.
CG: What have your students been like in your first semester at the SFCM? Is the Guitar Department there particularly outstanding?
PERROY:In the U.S., there are usually 15 or 20 students; here there are 34. And my 14 students are quite international! The faculty is bigger than most in the U.S., and all of us are very different. There is David [Tanenbaum, head of the department], who’s playing traditional repertoire but is very involved with contemporary music. You have [Richard] Savino, who’s playing Early Music. [Also on the faculty are Lawrence Ferrara, and Marc Teicholz, whom Perroy has known for 20 years.]
CG: What do you know about why the SFCM hired you? Did it have anything to do with your students’ records in winning competitions?
PERROY: They hired me a lot because of that. But I was very clear in the interview: Yes, I had competition winners, but I hope my work is valuable because I do a good job with the ones who don’t win competitions, who are interested in chamber music or teaching or whatever. And some of them are really as good as the competition winners.
CG: Have you played the historical guitars in the SFCM’s Harris Collection?
PERROY:It’s amazing! It’s always interesting to try the instrument that the music was composed for. Most people don’t play Beethoven on a pianoforte, but still it’s interesting to know how the sound was.
CG: What about your own instruments, the ones you use?
PERROY: [Gestures toward a Greg Smallman guitar standing by the wall.] I bought that guitar 17 years ago, and I like it mainly because of the sustain, though the tone is less what people like to hear on traditional guitar, in the Spanish style. A year ago I bought a [Ignacio] Fleta, from 1978, and it’s exactly the opposite. It’s lighter, you need more effort to play it [with the right hand], but then you can do more with the tone, the vibrato.
CG: Is the guitar, as an art, gaining status and integration in the 21st century?
PERROY: In contemporary music, for sure. Because of what guitarists like David Tanenbaum here do with contemporary composers, the guitar can be treated with the same importance as other instruments.
As for the past—[Mauro] Giuiliani will never be Beethoven.