Irina Kulikova’s life story is an inspiring tale of how natural talent, hard work, and family support combined to launch her as an internationally renowned classical guitar virtuoso. Her latest album, It’s About the Touch, is the 38-year-old guitarist’s most personal musical statement to date, featuring selections that shaped her musical personality as a child in Russia.
Kulikova’s previous albums have waded into substantial repertoire, presenting distinctive takes on J.S. Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1” and large-scale sonatas by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Antonio José, Manuel Ponce, and others. Her 2014 album, Reminiscences of Russia, contains atmospheric works by countrymen Konstantin Vassiliev, Sergey Rudnev, and Victor Kozlov.
It’s About the Touch takes a different tack. With the support of a crowdfunding campaign, it was released on Kulikova’s newly launched production company, which also publishes her transcriptions. The album features chestnuts like Frédéric Chopin’s “Vals No. 7,” Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1,” Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” Agustín Barrios’ “La Catedral,” and four classics by Francisco Tárrega. Also included is a guitar setting by Vassiliev of “Mariëlle (Be as Beautiful as You),” a lullaby Kulikova’s husband, Wouter Fellendans, penned for their daughter. One of the guitarist’s childhood friends, cellist Feliks Volozhanin, appears on five tracks, including Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio,” Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and Vassiliev’s evocative “Three Night Ballades.”
Her Life’s Soundtrack
As befits the album’s concept, the music showcases Kulikova’s sensitive musicianship. She tenderly shapes and caresses each phrase on the predominantly introspective selections, but reveals her fiery virtuosity on Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias” and “La Catedral” (Barrios). The 77-minute program is, in essence, the soundtrack to Kulikova’s own childhood, and represents a personal milestone.
“As a child discovering music, I fell in love with music by Schubert, Albinoni, Chopin, Debussy, Abéniz, and Tárrega,” Kulikova says in a FaceTime call from her home in the Netherlands. “It had an influence on my personality and how I wanted to be as a musician. After my daughter, Mariëlle, was born, I had to say no to some activities and not travel as much so I could be with her. I gave myself a goal that when she was eight years old I would record a CD with favorite pieces that influenced me when I was young.”
Kulikova grew up in Chelyabinsk, a city close to the southern Ural mountains near the Russia-Kazakhstan border. (In 2013, Chelyabinsk made headlines worldwide when a meteorite exploded miles above the city, shaking the ground and lighting up the February morning sky.) The guitarist’s parents provided Kulikova and her younger brother a warm, nurturing environment despite the political and economic turmoil that surrounded them as the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s.
“I was born into a very happy family,” she says. “My mom is a cellist and taught at a music school—which was a very good-paying profession in the Soviet Union. After the end of the Soviet Union, it became the worst profession.”
By the time she was five years old, Kulikova was taking piano and guitar lessons at the school where her mother taught. She was soon a guitar prodigy studying with Victor Kozlov, a guitarist and composer teaching at the Chelyabinsk Music College. “He mostly taught adults; I was his first young student,” she recalls. “With Victor, it was serious guitar instruction; he taught me guitar technique. My mother showed me a lot about cello technique and worked with me on musical phrasing and singing as I played. So I had two teachers.”
A video posted on IrinaKulikova.com shows her at eight—already technically accomplished and poised—effortlessly playing Tárrega’s gavotte “Maria” and more. Around this time, she began playing gigs to help support her family.
Thriving Through Hard Times
“It was a challenging time for my parents,” she says. “I started playing concerts in military hospitals, prisons, and kindergartens when I was eight, and got paid with a box of food for my family. There was no food in the shops. My father was working in a factory, but didn’t get any money. After three years, he received 12 vacuum cleaners for his salary. He and my brother sold them on the street to get money.”
Some of the vacuum funds allowed an 11-year-old Kulikova and her mother to take the 48-hour train journey train to Voronezh, Russia, for an international guitar competition. It was well worth it. “I won first prize, she says. “I only had a cheap guitar back then and [Spanish guitar virtuoso and composer] José Maria Gallardo Del Rey was on the jury. When I returned to Voronezh the next year for a concert [as the previous year’s winner], he brought me a handmade guitar by Manuel Contreras. It was a very special gift from him.” The Spaniard would become an advocate for the young Kulikova, who was becoming a child star in Russia.
A paucity of available recordings and scores in Russia presented challenges as she grew musically. “We had a few pieces published by a Moscow company, but there were a lot of mistakes in them. It was difficult to get the repertoire that people all over the world were playing. Sometimes my mother would spend the night hand-copying a borrowed score for me. My father took photos of others and developed them in the dark room. I feel like I’m 150 years old telling stories like this! Now you can just order them from Amazon.
“As a kid I practiced scales, arpeggios, and exercises for both hands a lot,” she continues. “I would practice six to eight hours a day with no weekends or holidays off. The winters in Russia were long and cold, so what else could you do? Music was my best friend. When you practice, you go into this imaginary world and feel so rich, so happy, playing beautiful music. I used to practice with my mom, and we went to concerts. My family gave everything to my brother and me so we could be happy.”
A teenaged Kulikova got invitations to perform across Europe and received a scholarship from her city for studies abroad. “José Maria Gallardo Del Rey had given me the guitar and some lessons and promoted me to others,” she says. “I went to England where I met [guitarist, author, publisher] Maurice Summerfield and took master classes with David Russell and Sérgio Assad. When I was 14, Maurice sent me a lot of CDs; when I was 15, I went to England to play a solo concert. It was very special to meet so many great musicians at such a young age. The doors opened for me to a real guitar life.”
Kulikova continued her education at the Gnessin Academy in Moscow and the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria, and won top prizes at several prestigious international competitions. “I was very lucky to study in Austria with Marco Tamayo,” she says. “He completed my technique and helped me become very efficient at practicing. I learned to do in two hours what I used to accomplish in six and to be relaxed and precise in my playing. We worked on the most difficult repertoire, like the sonatas by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Antonio José, as well as Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and other concertos.”
Kulikova says she has brought together the diversity of perspectives that shaped her as an artist into her own unique teaching method that she applies in master classes around the world and as a guest professor at various universities. “I approach the artist as a whole,” she says. “First we focus on the quality of sound. But I am also passionate about helping students deal with stage fright by developing rock-solid technique.” This year she will open an online academy bearing her motto in life and music: It’s All About the Touch.
Expanding the Guitar’s Reach
Kulikova has had numerous solo guitar pieces composed for her and, because she enjoys playing with other instrumentalists and vocalists, is setting her sights on chamber music. “Classical guitar is blooming; we are reaching a golden age,” she says. “I see this all over the world—in Russia, China, Europe, and the United States. We need to now persuade classical guitar societies to do more concerts with guitar and other instruments, to be more like other music societies. I don’t see guitarists playing for chamber societies. They have bigger halls and larger crowds. We are too separate from that world. I would love to see the guitar enter the chamber societies, playing with violinists, cellists, and other instruments. A lot of my friends play in string quartets or as solo violinists and cellists, and they love playing with guitar.”
The cello is particularly special to Kulikova, as shown by her ongoing work with Feliks Volozhanin. “My mother is a cellist and Feliks is a cellist I’ve known since I was eight years old,” she says. “We lived on the same street, attended the same music school, and our birthdays are five days apart. It’s amazing to play with someone like that. I know his phrasing and never have to look to know when he is going to start.” He was a natural choice for this very personal album. Kulikova asked Vassiliev to write something for them with both instruments having equal parts, and “Three Night Ballades” is exactly what she was looking for.
Kulikova feels she is reaching her full potential as a mother, musician, and teacher. “I love to balance everything so everyone is happy, there is good energy, and quality time,” she says. “You need to be well organized to manage everything. I am extremely happy to have all these things in my life.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.