Gautier Capuçon


(Photo © Catherine Pluchart)

Gautier Capuçon was just finishing his studies with Philippe Muller when I joined his studio in 2001. Unlike most of us, his life was already busy with concerts, making a quick transition from student life to an active concert career. A real hard-worker who never gave up on his dreams, he kindly took some time to talk with me after his first rehearsal of Richards Strauss's Don Quixote with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons.

How did you end up playing the cello?

I come from a musical family, even though my parents are not musicians. I have a sister, ten years older than me, who played the piano and still does as an amateur, and my brother, five years older, is a violinist. My parents say they gave me a violin when I was four and a half years old, which I played for one month. I erased that experience quickly from my memory…because I have good taste! (laughs) I truly hated it. My parents thought: “Well, his sister plays the piano, his brother the violin, let’s give him a cello!” So it’s not I like I chose the cello, they just gave me one but I loved it immediately. I loved the position, how you sit and embrace the cello, and the sound and depth of the lower strings.

You always had the reputation of being a hard-worker. What’s a practicing day like for you?

Well, I do believe in hard work. I think there is no mystery in life. I think any job, any passion in life, whether you are a painter, a poet, a musician or a politician, being gifted alone is not enough. Sure, it’s nice to be talented, you don’t need to practice that much, but at some point it is essential to put in some hard work if you want to build your foundations properly. So I did practice a lot when I was young, but it was not a pain for me. I truly loved it. Later you learn to practice differently because you don’t have as much time on your hands. For example, this week I am not only practicing Don Quixote but also preparing the next two concertos I will be playing. I am not the kind of guy who picks up the piece the day before and feels good about it. I would hate not doing my best, and even my best is never enough, so that’s why I keep working. So I always like to have two weeks to build a piece up, even if I played it a lot. Actually especially when I played it a lot, if it’s a concerto I play by memory, like Dvorak or Elgar, I make sure to look at the music again, because I don’t want to just do the same thing I used to do, without thinking about it. Very often, I find new ideas in pieces I have been playing for a long time just by looking at the music again with a fresh look. Going back to practicing, I have to practice when I am on tour because I have very little time for it when I am at home now. When I was young, with no family and no kids, being home meant I could rest, sleep and practice. Now is the opposite, because when I am at home I want to take care of my family, which I don’t see so often. Because of this, it is very important that I practice well when I am on tour so I can be with them when I come home. There is the practicing on the instrument, but you can also get inspired just looking at the music or simply thinking about the piece.

So you are done playing etudes or scales?

Yes, I don’t do those anymore, but maybe I should! I think it’s more about how you work a technical passage, how you try to make it lead to music. And I wouldn’t have the time anyway. I would love to have each day ten hours to practice, ten hours to be with my family and ten hours to see my friends, but it’s not possible! So you have to make priorities and always think about the music. We never stop learning anyway.

Could you talk to us about your experience with your teachers, especially your time with Phillipe Muller in Paris and Heinrich Schiff in Vienna?

The first thing I have to say is that I feel I met all my teachers at the right time and that is a very important thing. The other way around would not have worked! My first teacher in Chambery, Augustin Lefebvre, was really inspiring and truly gave me the passion of the cello. He teaches in Lyon now. He loved music and the cello and he knew how to talk to kids. I remember he would always say “Music has to swing” and in a way, that is exactly it. Then I studied in Paris with Annie Cochet, who basically built all my technique over our ten years together. I met Philippe Muller quite early, maybe around thirteen, through private lessons first, and then I studied with him at the Conservatoire in Paris for five years. He was a very demanding teacher, rarely saying that he was happy about how I played, so that pushed me to always work harder to improve my playing. We worked on most of the cello repertoire together and technically we worked a lot on my bow hand, which is based on Andre Navarra’s bow technique. Of course, Philippe Muller made it his own, but being himself a student of Navarra, it influenced him a lot. I was happy to hear that he is now teaching in Ney York City. American students can now gain advantage from his knowledge! I must also say that Philippe Muller took very good care of me, like my other teachers actually. I was incredibly lucky overall and I think it’s very important when you are between ten to twenty years old that you have a teacher who is there for you every week, if not more. And Heinrich Schiff in a way was a great match because he was also a student of Navarra. Of course, he has a very different personality from Philippe Muller, being very extrovert while Philippe Muller is more introvert. And a different way of playing too, but still based on the same foundations. So it was not a big change for me. With Heinrich, we worked more on the sound, how to produce a big sound without forcing. Actually it’s funny because what feels loud is more about the quality of the sound you produce than just plain volume. Sure, you can press more or less, but the richness, depth and intensity of the sound matter more. One thing that was really lucky for me with all my teachers is that they let me develop my own personality. They didn’t impose anything, they were there to help me do my best, but didn’t always tell me how to do it. I had to think on my own too.

You have a very interesting set-up when you play, sitting on the back of your chair with a very long endpin, which seems to make the cello more horizontal. Could you explain how this position came about?

It’s very easy to explain. I was towards the end of my studies in Paris with Philippe Muller and I was practicing like a pig, maybe eight hours a day. By the end of the day, my back was always hurting so bad. I was tired of sitting on the edge of the chair with my back leaning towards the cello. So I thought I would do my last hour of practice sitting with my back comfortably sitting on the back of my chair. Because I did that, I also had to lengthen my endpin, which also changed to angle of my cello. After playing in that position for a while, I felt that my cello was totally free and, because the cello was more horizontal, I could just the let the weight of my bow arm drop on the string, instead of pressing. I discovered maybe this was a more natural way to play for me than the way I did before. And of course I get asked this question often because I am a short person and my endpin is very long! I think one of our goals as cellists is to have power while being relaxed and that is the position that allowed me that possibility. I suddenly felt freer playing the cello. Free, but still in the ground. I have been playing with this set-up for at least fifteen years, maybe even more.

Actually Rostropovich held his cello quite horizontally too.

Yes, but I never liked his endpin. Even though I was not pressing into the cello when I tried it, it just didn’t feel comfortable to me. But the end result was indeed similar, a cello that was more horizontal.

Watching your bow from my angle in the cello section of the Boston Symphony, I get scared sometimes at how much bend you apply to the stick. And the bow seems pretty tensed to start with!

It’s true I apply a lot of pressure to my bow. I hope it’s insured! (laughs) They held on for three hundred years before me, so hopefully they can last at least thirty or forty more years! For me, it’s more a question of sensation, like a baker kneading the dough, something very deep but also very sensual. If you play the violin, you don’t need to dig that much, the sound just pops out because of the register. But for the cello, I think you really have to go into the sound. Not all the time, of course. You don’t really have to dig deep if you play a piece like Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, it’s more the melodic cello about color and vibrato, you barely have to touch the string. Same thing for the death of Don Quixote, it’s more about feel. I actually really love the way Pierre Fournier plays this. But for concertos like Dvorak or Elgar, you can’t do this. It’s more about the feeling of going in and shaping something with your hands. But still without forcing! You could also compare it to a massage. You can get a very light one, but you can also get the deep tissue kind where they really dig in the muscle, but it still feels good. And then you have the ones that just hurt! (laughs) It is also a question of knowing the limits of your instrument. I played on my cello for fifteen years so I know it quite well. This week I am not very happy with it because of all the weather changes from dry Bavaria to cold Boston. But to go back to this idea of depth, I think maybe my need to dig in the string is what requires me to tense my bow a lot, because if there is not enough tension, I will play with the stick on the string! I actually can’t see the angle of the stick from my point of view. But sometimes I see pictures of myself playing from another angle, and yes often it looks quite scary! (laughs)

There are so many talented young cellists who dream to be a soloist like you. Are there specific qualities that are required to do this kind of job?

I think the first thing you need is personality. It doesn’t really matter what kind of personality, by the way. If you look at all the solo cellists active in the past forty years, we are all very different. But personality and charisma are things you can feel immediately when you see someone on stage. Actually it feels a bit wrong that so many young cellists want to be soloists. In France especially, maybe 98% of them want to be a soloist. First of all, not everyone can do it. I am not talking about technical abilities, because there are more and more talented young cellists every year. I am talking about the hidden part of the iceberg. Things we don’t talk about so much, which are loneliness and pressure. Those are two huge parts of this lifestyle. Of course it is also very fulfilling. Rehearsing Strauss all morning with you guys, the BSO and Andris Nelsons, it’s very precious. But all the rest is also a huge part of what the solo life is like. I think in France there is a problem in the mentality. Your first option should be to become a soloist. If you can’t, then maybe you can do recitals. If you can’t do recitals, then maybe….and so on. It is a bit ridiculous. We are talking about making music and being happy playing it, not about being frustrated. I think it’s a different mentality in Germany and Austria, and in the US too. In those places, there is a culture about chamber music, teaching, or orchestra playing. Personally I have done so many youth orchestras, and I just love it. Often if I play my concerto in the first half, I ask if I can play in the orchestra for the second half. I can’t do it this week because I am playing in the second half. I do think things are starting to change slowly though. For example, at the time I played in youth orchestras, everyone thought I was crazy. People thought I would be better off practicing with my teacher, tagging orchestra playing as something that would not be fulfilling musically. But now all the kids want to play in ensembles like the European Union Youth Orchestra or the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, which is great!

You are now launching your own cello class at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Could you explain the concept of this program?

Well, I am often giving masterclasses when I stay in the same place for a week. Of course it is nice but you don’t really build on the long-term. And I have too much respect for the teachers I had who took the time for me when I needed it to not take good care of my potential students and barely see them, because I am too busy touring. So when the Fondation Louis Vuitton asked me if I had some potential projects in mind, this is what I chose to do. The program is open to cellists who have finished their formal studies and are about to enter professional life. There is no age restriction. I think this is a very important time when you still need help but often don’t really know what to do or who to ask for advice. This year is a bit of a laboratory experiment, because it is the first time we do it. We have six cellists participating, and we meet once a month, for three days. It is very intense, all day long, and everything is public. And the main goal is to help each of those cellists, in whatever way they may need. And they all have different goals! Some of them are still in the learning phase, some of them want to take orchestra auditions, others want to play chamber music or be soloists. So it’s really all kinds of profiles and I really encourage that. My interest is not in doing a cello concerto masterclasse, it’s about helping each of them reaching their goal. I also want to help them in different ways. Maybe we can help them get in touch with a manager, teach them how to answer to an interview, or how to deal with stress. Because it’s funny that nobody teaches you those things. I also think it’s very important to understand the relationship with the body. It’s important because we are athletes too. I had lots of back pain from traveling so I have done some physiotherapy over the past year and a half and it really helps to know what muscles I am using and for which purpose. So we want to touch on all those different topics with the cellists participating in this program.

I think unconsciously I wanted to create something a bit similar to what I experienced with Heinrich Schiff. I had finished studying with Philippe Muller, I was already playing concerts, and I was going to Vienna every month for 5 days or a week, and it was exactly what I needed. Someone I could count on, while still being free. So this is what I want to create. It is not a masterclasse, it is a real class. I really want to build this family together, because I think it’s so important. I was so happy to see all these young cellists on our first day together, all different nationalities and they are all already great friends. We talk about music and cello and we enrich each other. The fact that this project was accepted by the Fondation Louis Vuitton and that we can study here in the building of Frank Gehry, in this beautiful auditorium, it is just fantastic. I called it “Classe d’Excellence” because I feel that is what the Fondation Louis Vuitton represents at all levels. Again, all this is done through hard work. Frank Gehry himself is a hard-worker, even as gifted as he is. So I think we are very lucky to be able to study there in those conditions and I hope this project will go on for a long time.

As a teacher, are there specific ideas that you particularly care about?

Like we said earlier, it’s all about the relationship with the instrument. It’s about the physical sensation that you feel with your hands when you play. The music, the line, the direction, how you go from a note to another, and of course the sound, which is so important to me. I could spend hours talking just about sound. It is really fascinating and I love it and can do it for ten hours in a row. But after three days, I can tell you I am dead. After our last session, I was flying to Tokyo the next day and my flight was delayed so I had to wait ten hours at the airport in Paris. I thought I would try to find a place to practice since I had so much time on my hands, but I was so exhausted I just sat on a chair doing nothing for ten hours! I give my all to those students because three days is not much. You quickly know in which direction you need to go with each student so there are a million things you want to share with them. And of course we talk about music a lot, not just cello technique. If you work on a Beethoven sonata, listen to the Symphonies! That’s something I was never told as a student. And go to concerts! In Paris, you never see music students at concerts! Maybe you can spot five of them? This is important.

Do you have any cello heroes?

I have many cello heroes. I think first of all of my teachers. Because of them, I do what I do today. It’s a big combination of my parents, my teachers and my personal life. I don’t have one cellist I adore, but many different ones. Pierre Fournier, Jacqueline DuPre, Pablo Casals, Daniil Shafran, Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Truls Mork, Zara Nelsova, Leonard Rose…and all for different reasons.

What do you like to do when you are not playing the cello?

I like to see close friends. I can’t do it often but I really cherish those moments. I like sports, especially skiing. I just did two hours of ski on my previous vacation and will do some more in February. I also like jogging, and to go back to our conversation on stress and pressure, I found that it really helped. I discovered it two years ago when I had a period being quite stressed and very tired. Aside of the benefits for the body, I couldn’t imagine how much it would help psychologically too. Running is for me a simple way to put all the stress and problems aside, and it’s also a great way to listen to a new CD while you are running around. I love to sit by my open fire at home in the winter, with good cheese and a good bottle of wine. I love good food, discovering new restaurants. And once again, that’s very close to our discussion on textures and colors. I like cigars too, but not too much because it is not so healthy. Jogging is much better! (laughs) And of course family is so important. But there is never enough time. You can have cheese and wine almost any time, but the rest is more rare. If I have two free hours on tour, one is spent practicing, the other resting, so there is no time left for other things. But I am not complaining.

What do you think makes the cello a special instrument?

It’s simply the most beautiful instrument! The closest to the human voice, the most sensual by its sound, its shape and the way you play it. It’s just a fact! (laughs)

Did you have any experience playing in cello ensembles?

Absolutely. I did some when I was younger, and in youth orchestras as well. The last one I did was in Verbier, and it was lots of fun. It was cellists from all kinds of backgrounds and we had a great time. Plus I was very happy because since a couple of years, I rarely play chamber music. I almost play only concertos with a couple of recitals and maybe one chamber music project. Last year I did a tour with the Schubert Quintet with the Artemis String Quartet. This year I toured my last recital recording around Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata with Frank Braley. Next season will be a tour with a great project for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henri Dutilleux with Lisa Batiashvili and a tour with Leonidas Kavakos and Nikolai Lugansky. The next recordings will be the Schubert Quintet with the Quatuor Ebene as well as two cello concertos live with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev. When I started out, I played much more chamber music, and now it is very little. I guess there are different episodes in life, but that’s why I was so happy to do the cello ensemble in Verbier, it was a good time.

Thanks for talking with me today!

Thank you! That was fun!

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