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Principal Cellist Pens New Book and Plays Concerto

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(Marco Borggreve photo)

Blaise Déjardin, BSO principal cellist since 2018, makes his concerto début in next week’s subscription concerts. For the program of riveting 20th century Germanic music, including Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie, Déjardin’s choice of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No.1 provides a melodic 19th century French contrast.

The upcoming concerts cap a recent winning streak by our native son. In February, it was announced that Blaise was to join the illustrious faculty at his alma mater, the NEC, this coming fall. Then March saw the arrival of Déjardin’s newest Opus Cello publication: an orchestral audition-day guide, written by a cellist for cellists (or so it may seem upon first glance).

Auditions serve as the challenging entrance exams for all aspirants to seats in an orchestra. Behind the now-obligatory anonymous audition screen sit the gatekeepers: a conductor and a jury of peers and potential colleagues. Intense preparation, and what some might say a lifetime of experience, will suffice only for a very few contenders. What makes the winning difference? Blaise Déjardin’s new book “Audition Day: Your Guide for a Successful Orchestral Cello Audition” aims to provide an insider’s approach to niche success. This new guide seeks to dispel the mysteries of the screen and illuminate a methodical, logical, and psychological preparatory course of action.

Déjardin’s publication goes beyond the mere technical tips and rudiments of orchestral playing; rather, it speaks to an organized and structured musicianship at its most effective. While the excerpts are concrete, what is less-so is the preparation process that a musician may implement before enduring such a professional feat. The first and most unique section of this book deals with this regimen. The second section discusses the often-required orchestral excerpts from the standard repertoire.

These seemingly small, but often very exposed moments make daunting challenges for candidates, yet also serve to reveal so much for audition jurors. Imagine playing as one voice detached from the various sonic forces and instrumentation that bring a fully realized notion of the music to life in concert. Without the assistance of your colleagues in creating an aural frame, making sense of a single stave from a vast partitura poses a tremendous challenge. It is no wonder why solo playing alone does not suffice in impressing the faceless jury. Indeed, the German word for excerpt is perhaps more apt in relaying the meaning: der Auszug (which also translates as abstract). This music is an abstraction, and like a puzzle piece outside of its relationship to the whole, an auditioning musician must be considered as but one additional unit in the greater composition of an orchestra — let alone one individual per part in a plastic, fluid, musical ocean.

This book is thoroughly organized and concise; though for this cellist-reviewer, the most valuable kernels of empirical knowledge (à la Kant) are nestled to the left of the excerpts themselves. Numbered as 1. Focus Points, 2. Concept, 3. Technical Tips, this page of information accompanying the music illuminates the process needed to achieve a nuanced and fully realized sound world — totally out-of-context. 

What was once an intuitive and mostly private process, the author now openly shares. Like a professional athlete’s regimen, the musician’s training process demands so much more than the performative act, but how does one practice auditioning? Déjardin’s book is flush with good advice.

After reading and playing through his insightful book, I had a lot of questions for the author.

Cartoon by Jeffrey Curnow

NS: What gave you the impetus and inspiration to write your guide?

BD: I felt there was such a lack of information out there for young cellists seeking orchestra positions and willing to put in the work in the practice room. The older orchestral excerpt books, such as the ones put together by Leonard Rose, did not provide any advice on performance and style, and of course nothing on audition preparation. Getting Leonard Rose’s fingerings and bowings was considered enough. When you open my book, each excerpt is on the right-hand page with my fingerings and bowings and on the left side are my instructions. I touch on many topics such as the classic mistakes made by candidates, what the committee looks for when they listen to that excerpt and how to achieve both technical and artistic command of the piece.

On-the-topic of fellow principal cellist and pedagogue, the late Leonard Rose, what makes your selected choice of orchestral excerpts unique from those published by him?

The Rose books feature roughly 120 excerpts over two volumes. A good portion of those excerpts are taken from pieces that are not part of the standard repertoire anymore and he also includes cello solos. Audition Day focuses on 38 section excerpts, with over 30 of them likely to be asked in a modern orchestral cello audition and a few extra excerpts that I believe the reader can learn something from on their cello journey.

By the way, while I appreciate being tagged as a fellow of Leonard Rose in any shape or form, he remains a shining star far above from me, and one of my cello heroes. His sound and technique as well as Gregor Piatigorsky’s (who taught my former teacher Laurence lesser, now my colleague at the New England Conservatory) and Bernard Greenhouse’s (another teacher of mine) were part of what drew me to study in America. Rose and Greenhouse both studied with Felix Salmond, and I remember funny stories from Mr. Greenhouse of how he would try to make both young cellists feel competitive about each other to drive their playing up.

Does your book contain any hints about the BSO’s audition repertoire traditions?

The BSO’s cello audition tradition rests more in its solo choices (Schumann’s Concerto and the first movement of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata) than the excerpts which are mostly common to all orchestras. Of course, I draft the audition list now so there are a few excerpts that I added recently and are included in the book. But frankly anyone who uses this book now will be ahead of the game when any cello audition repertoire is announced, no matter the orchestra.

What, if anything, in your book can be attributed to a quintessential BSO string section sound?

I think the most important component of the BSO string sound is its effortless warmth. A round, rich sound that is never abrupt. I sometimes touch on this concept like in Ein Heldenleben for example, where I emphasize that the opening phrase, while rich and full of bravura, should not sound aggressive. The concept of legato is also very important to us and this is definitely a priority for excerpts like the Brahms Second Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. But this is not unique to BSO, all orchestras need those qualities in a player and that’s why Audition Day is useful to anyone who wants to take that route in their career.

Clarity of execution, good rhythm and intonation, and a good sense of style are universal qualities wanted by any orchestra around the world.

How is your book different from similar publications in the “self-help” performance strategy genre?

I think the market targeted by this book is already what makes it different. I don’t believe there is any other book for cellists that includes sheet music with fingerings, bowings, instructions and a whole plan to prepare the event itself that is an orchestral audition. And did I mention that the book also features hilarious cartoons by Jeffrey Curnow? For those alone, the book is worth it!

At the same time, I don’t claim to be an expert in performance psychology. I just know I got better over time so I feel everyone should know it is a possibility for them too, instead of giving up on themselves. I incorporated in my playing the methods and ideas I share in Audition Day over my 10 years of growth in the BSO cello section, and I just wish I had understood those concepts much earlier, when I was in school for example. I recommend some books as reading resources at the end of Audition Day by experts in performance psychology to complete the methods discussed in my book.

Are the strategies outlined in your book exclusively for cellists?

They are not, as outlined by my dear BSO colleague Steven Ansell in his foreword. The audition preparation section can probably benefit any musician since the methods described are mostly about planning and mindset. The excerpts commentaries can probably give useful ideas to any string player since matters such as bow management, articulation, style and vibrato are common to all of us.

What differentiates your personal approach to auditions from those of your colleagues and how might readers of your book glean healthy habits from your example?

I am pretty sure many of my colleagues in the orchestral world use similar methods to mine. I think most people who want to become better performers under pressure will look for the same inspirations, many of them from the sports world, where dealing with the pressure is not a taboo like I feel it can be in the classical music world. The concepts discussed in Audition Day will likely be new to musicians who never worked at feeling better on stage or who judge the quality of their preparation solely by the number of hours logged into the practice room. Some of my ideas, like how to organize your practice time efficiently or convey a musical message in a compelling manner can benefit anyone, even without an audition as a final target.

Congratulations on your upcoming BSO subscription series concerto début playing Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 1! Did your preparation make use of the same approaches from your book? What makes one high-pressure solo scenario different from another (concerto vs. audition)?

Thank you! I very much look forward to playing this piece with Andris Nelsons and my dear BSO colleagues. Some aspects of the preparation are similar but I also feel a bit quicker and wiser today in my assessment and expectations of what needs to be done for a good performance.

I also have a lot more experience in high-pressure performances under my belt since I became principal cello and having a positive memory bank of those events is a key element for feeling good on stage. At the same time, I obviously have played concertos a lot less than cellists who solo with orchestras for a living, so I am just as curious as you to see how it goes! I played the piece with orchestra before, it’s more the concept of being in front of my own orchestra instead of inside the group that will be new for me. To play this piece with Andris is a dream come true, I still vividly remember his first rehearsal with us in Mahler 9 at Carnegie Hall in 2011. Right then I dreamed the BSO would hire him one day. He is very skilled at conducting concertos, able to both follow the soloist and get the most out of the orchestral material.

I still feel there is no event as stressful for a musician as an orchestral audition. The sense of feeling judged paired with the wish to (finally) land a good regular salary and the stiff competition can make this a very high-stakes event. That is why I want to help young cellists be ready for the event itself and not surprised by it. A concert remains a chance to share beautiful music with an audience, it feels very different.

Is there any French connection between yourself and fellow Strasbourgeois, the late BSO Music Director, Charles Munch?

Our only French connection is that we are both from Alsace. Did you know that Boston and Strasbourg are sister cities since 1960 thanks to Charles Munch? I have been involved with the local association that nurtures this relationship and it is quite a coincidence to end up living in a sister city from my hometown.

On the other hand (pun fully intended), I feel a very special Strasbourg connection with my cello bow, which was made by George-Frederic Schwartz in Strasbourg in 1835. I looked up the address of his workshop then and to think this bow was crafted a 30 minutes-walk away from the building where I grew up 150 years later feels a bit like “meant to be”! My cello is also French, made by Charles-Adolphe Maucotel in Paris in 1854.

 Where can we purchase and learn more about your book?

You can order the book online on my website HERE and at Opus Cello. You can also find it both online and in-store at Johnson String Instruments in Newton Upper Falls, MA. To learn more about the book, I recommend checking out the beautiful video trailer crafted by Johnson String Instruments on YouTube HERE  and for a more complete experience, the video of my masterclass on 8 excerpts from the book at Carriage House Violins HERE.

Nicolas Sterner is a conductor, cellist, educator, and writer based in Cambridge, MA. Active as a freelancer and organizer of concerts, he is the founder and collaborative director of the Chromos Collaborative.  Most recently, his “Courtyard Concert” series with Chromos received public recognition by the Boston Globe, as part of their the Covid-19 pandemic piece “What we lost, what we found.” For more information, please visit Nicolas’ professional portfolio at www.nicolas-sterner.com.

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