Cellist Extraordinaire Gautier Capuçon

Photo Gregory Batardon
Photo Gregory Batardon

From the audience, that 2009 Sunday matinee performance in Davies Hall, nothing seemed amiss. Gautier Capuçon’s rendition of the Schumann Cello Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony won me over instantly, as did his stage charisma—and, okay, those  cinematic good looks of his. Two years later, his thoughtful, nuanced performance of Henri Dutilleux’s “Tout un Monde Lointain, ” again with the San Francisco Symphony, was equally sublime. (Read my blog on it HERE.) It was only when I researched him for this blog, in the aftermath of another brilliant performance with the SFS (Elgar Cello Concerto in May—okay, I’m woefully behind here) that I learned he’d suffered an appendicitis attack, back in 2009, smack in the middle of his intended debut performance with the San Francisco Symphony. The Sunday matinee I saw him? Less than 36 hours after emergency surgery. What was to have been his third performance had become his debut. Lucky, lucky us, we who’d had Sunday matinee tickets!

Here’s the story in his own words, courtesy of an interview with San Francisco Classical Voice.  

“The night before my debut, I met with Semyon Bychkov. We were preparing for the Schumann concerto. The next morning was the first rehearsal with the orchestra, and it went really well. I was so excited! Then I started having stomach problems. I knew something strange was going on inside. You know how some people have stomach problems when they are nervous? I’d never had stomach problems in my whole life.

By midnight the pain was so strong I was lying on the floor in my hotel. That’s when I decided to call the doctor. The doctor came two hours later. By then the pain was really horrible. He examined me and said it was appendicitis and I had to go straight to the emergency room to be operated on. I told him that’s not possible: “I have to play a concert tomorrow!” He stayed with me for two hours talking to me. Finally I said, “Let’s make a deal. You can drive me to the hospital, but you have to promise me I don’t have to wait — I know what emergency rooms are like; you can spend the whole night there.” He said, “OK.”

Of course, it was appendicitis and they operated on me right away. Afterwards the doctor told me if I had waited five more minutes it would have ruptured and I probably would have died. I was quite lucky.

The next morning I was back in the hotel and I tried playing my cello and I felt fine. So I called the Symphony and told them I could play the second concert. They had had to cancel my first. Then my agent called and spoke to me. She spoke to me like my mother. She said, “No way! It’s too risky.” I did play the last concert and it was great.”

Capuçon was born in Chambery, France, in 1981. Musical talent runs in the family; his older brother Renaud is an equally accomplished, world class violinist, with whom he frequently collaborates. He began to play the cello at age 5, commencing formal musical education in his hometown at the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Chambéry. He studied thereafter in Paris, first at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris (CNR) and then at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique, with Philippe Muller and Annie Cochet-Zakine (and later with Heinrich Schiff in Vienna). He’s the winner of various first prizes in international competitions, including the International André Navarra Prize, and in 2001 was named ‘New Talent of the Year’ by Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of a Grammy). In 2004 he received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. He plays a 1701 Matteo Goffriler cello.


Capuçon is tremendously interesting to watch perform. He’s reminiscent of pianist extraordinaire Yuja Wang, in that you can see and almost feel their curiosity, their interplay with the music: the notes, tonal colors and nuances. They’re immersed in the process of interpretation, almost dialoguing with it, brows furrowed in concentration only to be resolved a moment later with a slight nod, a yes, that was it; that was the feeling/sound I’d been striving for. To watch supremely talented artists working so deeply in the process makes it both a thrill and an honor to watch. It’s live performing at its best. Throw in good looks, an innate sensuality, and whoa, it’s especially fun.

Tell me if you agree…

Although Gautier Capuçon doesn’t have a lot of tours within the U.S. lined up this fall, he will be  in New York on October 21 – 25 at Avery Fisher Hall, with the New York Philharmonic. He’ll be performing one of my absolute favorites: the Brahms Double Concerto, with violinist Lisa Batiashvili. It’s worth going a long way to see but, regretfully, my San Francisco Bay Area base is a wee bit too far. So, those of you readers on the East Coast, please go see it for me. And after New York City, over the next four months, Capuçon will perform in, among other cities, Amsterdam, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Vienna, Paris, London. Just in case, you know, you’re in the neighborhood.

For those of us most decidedly not in the neighborhood, here are more YouTube clips you might enjoy. This first one is a rehearsal with Capuçon and renowned conductor Valery Gergiev (whose name ballet folks might recognize; he’s the general and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre). The rehearsal takes place in a church, I believe in France. I love these more relaxed, behind-the-scenes glimpses of a musician at work. It’s fun to see Valery Gergiev in a baseball cap and Gautier Capuçon in a white tee shirt and jeans, intent on rehearsing and not performing for the camera. Watch it all the way through; it’s great. The music is wonderful, but I’m not sure what it is. Can anyone help me here?

Here’s a full-length recording of the Dvoràk Cello Concerto very well presented. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVKb3DwPFA8

Here’s an interesting interview of sorts with Capuçon and pianist Frank Braley. The two of them recorded a CD in 2013 called “Arpeggione,”  and this is a mix of music and conversation. For those of you, like me, for whom French is like music itself, you’ll love it. And for those of you, like me, who enjoy informal, “behind the scenes” kind of interviews, there you go, too. And it’s lovely, intriguing music. https://youtu.be/rn-yNcSd2ws

And last but not least, want to see Capuçon and Yuja Wang perform together? Eye candy for both the sexes!

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