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Déjardin and the BSO in Saint-Saëns's Cello Masterpiece

Blaise Déjardin
Marco Borggreve / BSO
Blaise Déjardin, BSO Principal Cellist

Saturday, November 5, 2022
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast of the final concert in the 2021-2022 Boston Symphony Orchestra season, BSO Principal Cellist Blaise Déjardin is center-stage in Saint-Saëns's Cello Concerto No. 1, and Andris Nelsons conducts Richard Strauss's panoramic "An Alpine Symphony" and a selection from the composer's "Intermezzo."

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Blaise Déjardin, cello

Richard STRAUSS "Dreaming by the Fireside" from Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo
Camille SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto No. 1
STRAUSS An Alpine Symphony

This concert was originally broadcast on Saturday, April 30. It is no longer available on demand.

To hear Blaise Déjardin preview the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Saint-Saëns, talk about his new book, Audition Day, and how golf and learning magic helped his cello playing, use the audio player above, and read the transcript below:

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Blaise Déjardin, the Principal Cellist of the Boston Symphony. But Blaise, you're here in the guest soloist green room with a very different role this week: soloist for the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1. Thanks for a little bit of your time today.

Blaise Déjardin Oh, thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian McCreath I'm interested in your choice of this concerto. You were supposed to do it a couple of years ago, and the pandemic scotched those plans. But here we are, fortunate to hear you play the Saint-Saëns now. Why did you want to do this concerto, especially as your first concerto to do with the Boston Symphony?

Blaise Déjardin Well, I mean, for one thing, it's French, right? So it's sort of a nice package to have a French piece with a French cellist and a French cello and a French bow, you know.

And also it's a very lyrical piece. It's also a piece I played five years ago with an orchestra, so have a bit of experience with it, which is important. But, you know, it's a pretty standard piece for people to sort of start their solo career with, you know, when they're getting into the circuit. It's, you know, it's not like Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante, which actually nobody ever plays because it's too hard. So, it felt like the right choice, you know, and I'm really pleased to play it with the BSO and Andris.

Brian McCreath I guess that was one thing I was curious about is where this particular concerto stands amongst all these great cello concertos, Elgar, Tchaikovsky. Dvorák. But you say that it's one that a lot of people start their solo career with.

Blaise Déjardin Yeah, I think so, because, I mean, some people say, you know, it's still a student concerto, which I really disagree with. I think there's many things you can do with it. And it has very beautiful, beautiful melodies all the way through. Nice dialog with the orchestra, which is actually unique for me. When there's a section where I'm, you know, dialoguing with the winds, and I could probably, you know, name you every player while we're playing this passage, you know, that's something that not all soloists can do. But yeah, it is just a very lovely piece and very typical of French music of that time. So it felt like the right fit for me.

Brian McCreath And pretty challenging, by my eye, just watching you in rehearsal. You make it look easy, but there looks to be a lot of things that are pretty challenging to do. I mean, there's some incredibly high harmonics that you have to play and a lot of runs. But then, also, you need to be able to take advantage that fullness of sound in these lyrical sections.

Blaise Déjardin Yeah. You know, once again, if it's a piece, you've played a lot throughout your life, you know, most of those things come pretty naturally. I mean, I don't want to jinx myself for tonight, but the harmonics are challenging for sure. I think that was the goal of Saint-Saëns, to showcase the range of the cello. So it starts really on the low C, the open string, and goes up to the top F artificial harmonic. So those are a bit tricky. But you know, like many things with cello playing, you practice it well and hopefully it goes well, you know.

Brian McCreath Now, you mentioned the French cello, the French bow, and so this is your standard instrument that you use when you're playing Principal Cello. What do you have to do with this instrument, though, at the front of the stage? I imagine there's a little bit more projection that you have to imagine into your instrument. Is it really different for this, playing a concerto compared to a solo within the orchestra?

Blaise Déjardin Actually, in some ways it's easier. You know, it may be surprising to you, but, you know, when I'm in the orchestra, I'm really part of the group. I'm sitting at the same level, and most of the time I have to cut through, like in those Strauss pieces we're playing, which are very busy. I have to have very focused sound to cut through the whole orchestra material.

And actually, the first rehearsal I had with the BSO this week, I sort of felt lost in the first movement because I sort of couldn't hear the orchestra, you know, because now I was on a podium, which also has a bit of a reverberating effect. I was above the rest of the orchestra, and I was hearing myself so much, and I was not used to that at all. You know, that was very surprising to me.

So I think in many ways, it's, I mean, I don't want to say it's, no, soloists have a very hard job. This is very stressful to be up there. But sonically, I think it's actually a bit easier. It works in your favor a bit.

Brian McCreath Sure. And you've mentioned that you've played this concerto with other orchestras. What's the quality like as you sit there in the solo chair with the BSO sound behind you?

Blaise Déjardin Well, of course, it's fabulous. You know, I mean, for me, it's the best orchestra in the world. So it's a real treat to play with them, to be able to look around and see all my friends, and it feels very special.

And also, you know, to have this relationship with Andris, who have known quite a long time now, and it's really a treat to work with him in this manner. And he's so flexible, generous, attentive to whatever I want to do, which is also a difference. Usually I'm the one following him, following my colleagues, and this time I can be a bit more bossy, and try to get my way, you know?

Brian McCreath Nice, nice. Well, you always are doing things outside of your work in the orchestra. And you just published a book: Audition Day. And by the way, I love the cover. This fellow jumping out of an airplane and it's before his parachute has unveiled itself, so I can relate to that as a musician. Going into an audition, that's kind of what it feels like. But tell me about why you felt like this was something you wanted to add to what students and young professionals can rely on for their own progression.

Blaise Déjardin Well, that was my pandemic project, you know. So I was in Paris during the pandemic, and it's a book that probably I would not have had time to do without the pandemic. But I felt there was a lack of such an item for students because the only books we had before were made by Leonard Rose. And they were, I mean, you had like over 100 excerpts, with his fingerings, bowings, but no explanations on how to play it, about the style, about all the little tricks to make it sound right.

And also, I came to realize that a lot of students, you know, come to these auditions, and they practice the music, practice the music, practice the music. And I don't think many of them prepare the event, you know. And for me, we have to think like athletes, you know, who prepare for the high pressure of the event. And so I really wanted to, you know, I am in no way a specialist of performance psychology, but I've been very curious about it and my own journey with it. And I wanted to help young cellists, you know, to just get a few concepts, you know, in their mind and see if maybe it helps them in the long run, you know.

Brian McCreath Because auditioning turns out to be a skill unto itself. I mean, the goal is to be playing in the orchestra, but just doing the process of an audition, it's such an unusual circumstance to play music in, not only because you're sitting alone on a stage, but also because you're playing music that's meant to be played with other people, but you're playing it by yourself. And so I wonder if your position - which you entered into as Principal in 2018 - now you've actually, I'm sure, been on a lot of audition committees, as the orchestra has welcomed new members, how much insight you gained from hearing these BSO auditions for new members?

Blaise Déjardin For sure, you learn a lot, you know, being on both sides of the screen. As an audition, yeah, I felt I was lucky. I had some experience doing competitions before, and so the unfortunate thing is that many, many kids, you know, they figure out how auditions work once they've done 20 or 30 of them, you know, and that's what I want them to avoid.

And then, of course, listening to auditions, I mean, as you know, we have a screen almost all the way through. And it's actually rare to find people who actually know how to play those excerpts, right. And so that's why, of course, people who already have jobs and who are used to playing them have an advantage, for sure. But, when I got my job, I was just out of school. And so I think it's totally possible for kids in that situation to get those jobs as well.

But I feel like the one thing, you know, people mistake often with orchestral excerpts is thinking that they have to play more carefully, or not be too personal because you have to be part of a group. And there's this assumption that, if you play extroverted, you're going to disturb. And actually, it's not true. We want people who contribute and who at a sound and who are expressive. So I see that happen a lot, you know, in the final rounds, where we miss that. And then it's a bit too late to adjust, you know.

Brian McCreath Right. Right. And as you listen, especially to cello auditions in your position now, is there a way that you're hoping someone will play that will fit with the way the BSO plays? In other words, the way that phrases are shaped, the way notes are attacked. Are you listening for that? Or are you fairly certain that, when you just have a, you know, when there's someone who's really playing competently, they can adjust once they're in the orchestra?

Blaise Déjardin That's a good question. You know, there are two schools. Either you think people have to arrive already perfect, or you think they can get better. It's not always easy to tell if they can get better or not when you hear them in the final round. Usually what happens is that the people who play in tune and with good phrasing get to the final. And then what's important for us is the richness of the sounds.

The tension in the phrases is very important for Andris, like in Brahms's Second Symphony or Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, he wants that tension, that long tension building up. And so that's what he looks for. And so sometimes, he will work with the candidate, just to see if he can get it. And that's very important for him, you know.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. You mentioned that part of what goes on in this book and part of your own thinking is almost like being an athlete. I know you have things that you do outside of the BSO, like golfing, and I don't know if you're still baking. I know you went through a lot of baking, and maybe that's not relevant at all. But I wonder if some of those pursuits do kind of translate into some of the mental preparation, mental skills that you're looking for? Well, maybe not, you're looking for in a candidate, but certainly in your own preparation for playing a concerto or anything else.

Blaise Déjardin Well, actually, I thought about that recently because I've always been a guy with a lot of hobbies, you know. And I realize how much, actually, they help my cello playing, because, for sure I got better in my mental game because of golf, because it's such a frustrating sport, and I had to figure out, you know, how to keep my cool, whatever happens. So that was very helpful. And you have tons of books about how to deal with that. You know, you don't have tons of books about cello playing, dealing with that. You have tons of books about golf, mental game.

And then, even, I figured out, you know, when I was a teenager, I was doing lots of magic, lots of card magic, pretty intensely. And I figured even that was about, you know, I mean, first of all, of course, you try to reach perfection, but then you're often presented with problems, and you have to try to find solutions, like how to make it look like, you know, it is this way or not this way. And finding solutions and problem solving is so important in our practice as musicians. You know, what will make me feel secure in that spot, that will sound better in that spot? And you need to make quick decisions. And so I see even how that, you know, helped me in my cello playing. And the baking, you know, it was mostly fun, you know. [laughs]

Brian McCreath And tastes good in the end, too. Blaise Déjardin, it's so great to hear you. Gosh, the Saint-Saëns sounds incredible. And thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Blaise Déjardin Thank you, Brian.