BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
When French guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre won first prize at the 2018 Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition in Louisville, Kentucky, he was barely known in the U.S., so his victory at the country’s most important annual competition surprised many. But in Europe he was already widely respected, having competed strongly in numerous festivals there, and in 2017 winning the prestigious International Guitar Competition José Tomas–Villa de Petrer in Spain, which resulted in the recording of his excellent first album for the JSM label, Guitar Recital, which included pieces by Bach, Granados (his own arrangements of the Valses poéticos), Tansman, Assad, and Dyens.
Part of Feuillâtre’s prize package for winning the GFA competition was being able to make his equally strong second album for the Naxos Laureate Series in 2019—inconveniently also calledGuitar Recital—again featuring the multi-part Granados work, but also pieces by Rameau (three of his keyboard works), Barrios, Llobet, Villa-Lobos, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and Ariel Ramírez. Both albums reveal a tremendously versatile and sensitive player. And this fall, Feuillâtre embarks on what is perhaps the most significant part of his GFA competition prize package: an extensive North American tour of some 50 cities, which will expose him to thousands of new listeners and no doubt set the stage for future tours on the continent.
I was curious to know more about this extraordinary young talent, so in July I conducted an interview with him via email—he in Paris, me in the San Francisco Bay Area—to find out more.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: Are your parents musicians?
RAPHAËL FEUILLÂTRE: Actually, there are no other musicians in my family. Like everyone, my parents listened to music on the radio or some CDs, but never classical music as far as I remember. Now, I think that they appreciate classical music more because of me.
CG: Why did you choose to play classical guitar?
FEUILLÂTRE: I think I’ve always been sensitive to music, and I needed to express myself with it. I remember that I would sing to myself before sleep more or less every night since I was really young until the age of 10 or something, and also often make percussion sounds. I’ve no exact memories of why I chose the guitar, but it was this instrument or nothing! I asked for a guitar for Christmas when I was around 6 or 7 years old. First, I had an electric guitar toy and then a classical one. I would play it all the time, so my parents understood that it was not just some childish desire, but something I really wanted and probably needed. So at the age of 9 they registered me at the conservatory where I was living.
CG: You studied at the conservatories in Nantes and in Cholet [in southern Brittany]. Did you grow up in or near Nantes?
FEUILLÂTRE: I grew up in Cholet, which is a little city—not so far from Nantes—where there is a really good conservatory. I studied with Hacène Addadi for solo guitar and Marie-Caroline Foussier for guitar ensemble. Then, during high school, I moved to Nantes and its bigger conservatory. There, I was in Michel Grizard’s class for three years before entering the Conservatoire national supérieurde musique in Paris, where I’ve just finished my studies.
CG: Who are some of the guitarists you admired when you began to study the instrument seriously?
FEUILLÂTRE: I guess my early teacher, Hacène Addadi; I remember him playing during classes and I loved it. He also often lent me CDs by Turibio Santos, Alexandre Lagoya, Narciso Yepes. . . . So, very young I was listening to and admiring those guitarists. The first guitarist I really loved was Alexandre Lagoya.
CG: Do you feel that you were still able to enjoy a “normal” childhood even though you spent so much time playing the guitar? Did you play sports with friends? Did you listen to popular music, too?
FEUILLÂTRE:I don’t know if I had a “normal” childhood, but I don’t think that the music prevented me from doing whatever I wanted, because I loved it. I grew up with it and it helped me more than it deprived me. I was still totally free to do whatever I wanted. Nobody pushed me to play that much.
CG: It seems as though all guitarists study with many teachers, learning something new from each of them. What sorts of things did you learn from your time with Tristan Manoukian, Judicaël Perroy, and Michel Grizard?
FEUILLÂTRE:During my three years with Michel, he had a huge impact on my artistic development. I loved to work with him, and I had amazing opportunities to play. It was probably the sanest, most peaceful, and efficient period in my life, in which I progressed the most.
I worked more than five years with Judicaël. It was not super-regular classes, but he really helped me in my artistic development too. Of course, he helped me to prepare for competitions, but above all he helped me to find my way and get to know myself and respect who I was.
I worked with Tristan Manoukian those last two years, so I was really often away from the conservatory, because of concerts mostly. But he also encouraged me and respected me as a musician, which was very important. He is an amazing human being and artist with very strong values about pedagogy and music, which affected me a lot.
CG: Do you still enjoy playing competitions, or are you looking forward to being just a concert artist?
FEUILLÂTRE: Actually, I stopped competitions after the GFA, and I hope I won’t have to do any other ones. There are a lot of good things to learn with competitions, but I don’t feel that it’s for me right now.
CG: Were you surprised when you won the GFA competition in 2018?
FEUILLÂTRE:Yes! You never really know why you win a prize or a competition. That’s funny, because when you don’t have good results in a competition even though you have played well, you feel that it’s not right, sometimes even unfair. But when you win, you have no idea why you deserved this prize compared to other competitors! I started to think like that after playing in so many competitions because I felt I was quite consistent in my performance, but the results were not, of course.
CG: Have you ever experienced racism in the guitar world?
FEUILLÂTRE:Not at all, as far as I know. I have played in some countries where black people are not considered well, but I don’t know what people thought in the audience.
CG: How about in your life outside the guitar world?
FEUILLÂTRE:I don’t think so, or I don’t remember. Maybe I’m lucky, or I’m always in good places. Mostly racism is frowned upon, so people don’t say anything.
CG: I know you enjoy making your own transcriptions and arrangements. Is there a particular style or composers whose work you would like to transcribe for guitar?
FEUILLÂTRE:I miss making transcriptions, because at present I don’t have the time, and so many very beautiful arrangements of amazing pieces are already done. Right now, I only have some crazy desires, probably not even playable on the guitar. In the near future, I’ll probably play more pieces by Rameau, Scriabin, Bach, Ravel, and others that are already really well-arranged.
CG: You are about to embark on your grand tour for the GFA. What do you hope is communicated to North American audiences through your repertoire choices and playing?
FEUILLÂTRE:I’m always pleasantly surprised when people like what I’m doing. I usually have no idea of what people understand and what they appreciate in my concerts. I’ve never really played in U.S. [except at GFA], so I don’t know what to expect. I’ll try to balance my program, to make it as understandable as possible, according to my tastes, and continue to develop, trying to do better and better. I’m glad to have the opportunity to play that much and touch that many people.
CG: How do you like to spend time when you are not playing the guitar?
Feuillâtre: I’m teaching [at the École municipale de musique de Villeneuve-la-Garenne, right outside of Paris] and I love that. Otherwise, I’m listening to a lot of music and I love to go to concerts. Besides that, what I do the most is watch movies and hang out with friends. When I can, I like to play sports, too. I’ve just finished my studies, so I hope to have more time in the near future.
WHAT RAPHAËL FEUILLÂTRE PLAYS
For the past two years, Raphaël’s main guitar has been a 2012 model from top French luthier Dominque Field. It has a spruce top and CSA rosewood back and sides. Raphaël’s strings of choice are Savarez Cantiga Premiums.