It’s rare that at CelloBello we have contributors undergoing major professional shifts, so we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight the recent Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal audition that was won by Blaise Déjardin, a long-time CB blogger. For our readers, we wanted to bring light to Blaise’s motivations, aspirations, and perceptions of the audition process, directly from him to you. Thank you for your candidness, Blaise!
Blogmaster: Why did you decide to audition for the principal chair?
Blaise: There are many reasons, but I think the biggest is that I saw it as an opportunity for growth. After 10 years in the section, of exploring and trying to improve, this seemed like a great chance to keep doing that and to keep challenging myself. So, I thought it was a no brainer. I mean, it was the first audition in over 50 years for that job. I’m in my early thirties which seems to be a good timing. So I just had to take it.
Can you give us any insight into how the audition felt for you? Did you play like you had expected to?
I seldom play by my hopes so I don’t expect that anymore. But there were a couple of major excerpts which I played exactly the way I wanted, so that gave me some confidence. And also, I feel like I played better as the audition went on, which is sort of ideal knowing that you need more votes to advance as the audition carries on. I didn’t plan to start lousy and get better [laughs] but I kept feeling more comfortable with the process. Of course it’s hard—I played the first time around 3 pm, the last time around 8 pm—but we all know it’s not going to be easy.
I know it was 10 years go, but how did this audition feel compared to your section audition?
It felt like my first audition all over again. I auditioned twice for each position I won and for both auditions I got very far the first time and didn’t get the job, and then came back the next year to win it. I don’t know why this pattern happened! I am not sure if there was much difference between the section and principal auditions. The last one was more interactive—there was a chamber music round and some time playing with Andris conducting. So in that way it was different, otherwise it’s still like any other audition.
Frankly, I went into my second principal audition with few expectations. I wanted to play well but I don’t think I cared that much about the result itself. If my playing wasn’t what the committee wanted it was fine with me. I was really at peace with whatever may happen. So I think in a way it helped not to worry too much about it.
You didn’t put too much extra pressure on yourself.
No, I slept really well and didn’t touch my cello the day before the audition. We were recording Shostakovich 4 the week before, and with all the practicing plus the workload, I was really tired. So I just felt I better save my energy. It’s funny, because I talked with my former teacher Philippe Muller in New York City a few weeks ago, and he said that was a trick from his teacher André Navarra—to not practice or to go to the movies the day before a big competition, just to clear your mind. Because the way I looked at it I thought: What am I going to practice today? The work is already done. I’ve been preparing for three months. Nothing I’m going to do today is going to make a huge difference tomorrow, so I think it’s better to relax. Then the next day is very hard, so you must have all your energy.
When you took the section audition you didn’t know the people in the orchestra, but when you took the principal audition, while you didn’t know who specifically was behind the screen, you obviously had some sense of what your colleagues are like, who they are. Was that something you were aware of during your preparation? Or when you were playing?
I didn’t try to please them, even though I did pay attention to the feedback I got from my first audition. I think it’s always a mistake to try to please the jury. You can’t change who you are anyway! And you have to believe in your own ideas to sound convincing. I thought “I’m happy with my life already and I’m happy with who I am, so I play like I am and if they like it, good, and if they don’t it’s fine.” Some of them actually stayed behind the screen until the very end, even when the jury chose to take away the screen, so I didn’t know who they were and they didn’t know they were voting for me.
In terms of your preparation, how do you condition yourself for that kind of pressure? From what you said before, it sounds like you really try to take the pressure off, if anything. Any specific routines? Secret diets?
Well [laughs], I do try to eat well and healthy, especially the weeks before the audition. And I make sure to exercise regularly. So I usually lose weight and once the audition is over I’m just so happy I can eat again and relax and I gain all of the weight back [laughs]!
Obviously I believe in muscle memory. All my bowings, my fingerings, my bow distribution are very carefully chosen to match my phrasing so that I can rely on them under pressure. I always try when I’m practicing to have an immediate emotion as well, to be able from the first note to have the right character, the right emotion, so when I get to the audition I just do the same thing. Obviously I had the chance to practice in the hall a bit. I don’t know if it helps or not, but this year I felt I played the hall better than last year. I also thought about how it’s going to be when I’m on stage when I was in my practice room. And then each excerpt has to be very convincing musically. You want to show a lot of different things within each excerpt and between each excerpt so that your Shostakovich is going to sound very different from your Strauss, or from your Haydn D. I think showing you have some variety in your playing is important.
I have some experience sitting on committees, and even if someone, let’s say, has a very good tone, if it’s the same character all the way through the audition you’ll get bored. It doesn’t matter. It’s like any audience. You want to keep them interested and surprise them sometimes. I also believe in what sort of mental mindset you have going in. That’s why I said I didn’t feel like I cared as much about the result as you would expect, strangely. That was my mental plan for the audition, to make sure my mind doesn’t get in the way of my own playing. We all have that fear of being judged and not being liked as a performer, but who cares already! I don’t want to go on stage and have a terrible audition because I’m scared of being me. I know that sounds stupid; it’s easy to say and harder to do. But that’s something I worked a lot on after I got my section job. I got really into sports psychology when I started golfing, finding many parallels between sport and music performance. Later I became interested in Zen philosophy, which is very much that “things are what they are.” You don’t want to perform below your own standards so just live in the moment and try to enjoy it.
I also believe a lot in challenging yourself regularly. I think it’s in Dr. Greene’s book—Performance Success, I think it’s called—one thing he said that grabbed me was to challenge yourself. Take challenges because the more you succeed the more you can put that in your positive memory bank and next time you have something else that’s hard coming up, you can say “well, I already did this before successfully, so I can definitely do that.”
When I was a student I wasn’t actively seeking new challenges. I was not really the competitive type and I didn’t feel like I wanted to go everywhere and compete with my friends, to win this or win that, but maybe there was also a fear of failure behind this attitude. So actually, after I got my section job, I wanted to try more things. I had opportunities to play some concertos and recitals, and with the Boston Cello Quartet we played many technically challenging pieces (some of which I am guilty of writing [laughs])! But I think that’s an important priority, to keep challenging yourself. And the more you succeed—I think the more I did it, the less I felt I could fail at anything. So it just gives me confidence to keep trying. And this audition was just one more exciting challenge to take on.
Jules Eskin was, obviously, the principal cellist throughout your time as a BSO section player. What kind of influence do you think he had on you, as a leader?
It’s hard to say. I am not sure if there’s anything in my playing that compares to Jules, but of course I remember his tone. It was rich and strong. He was just a strong guy in all senses of the term—physically he was way stronger than me!
He was still doing push-ups and pull-ups?
Yes, and my colleagues asked me when I got the job, “Where are you doing your push-ups?” and I just don’t do that [laughs].
So yes, I have the memory of that tone. And I’ve heard my other colleagues take turns playing as principal over the last few years, so really I feel like I’ve learned a lot from everyone. I learned a lot from my colleagues in the section, I learned a lot from people playing other instruments, and for me that’s the great thing about being in an orchestra like the BSO where it’s really really high quality players—it really pulls you up, so I feel very lucky that I landed there in the first place.
So, you’ve already had your debut as principal—are there any other big solos or pieces you’re excited to play next season?
Well next season there are the two big Shostakovich symphony solos—No. 1 and No. 15—No. 1 is at the start of the season, and No. 15 is at the end. Those are going to be pretty big. And even though I know No. 15 is probably the more popular one, I actually love No. 1. I think it’s really heart-breaking and wounded, and really touching. So I’m really excited to play that, especially with Andris. And we’re recording with Deutsche Grammophon, which is pretty awesome! So those two I’m looking forward to. There are plenty of solos at Tanglewood this summer—there’s also a big solo on our upcoming European tour in the Bernstein Serenade so I will be pretty busy.
I actually really enjoy sitting where I’m sitting now. I enjoy the direct contact with the maestro. I feel like that really helps me to be a bit more expressive and free. It’s really like a dream to be there.
And my last question, if you have anything to add, what’s one piece of advice you would offer to aspiring orchestral player?
You have to be yourself and play very musically. I know so many people—especially for the BSO—so many people try to match what they’ve heard the BSO members like to hear, and I don’t really believe in that as a sole point of focus, because then you don’t play freely and you worry about what you are doing as you are playing instead of just being one with the music. In the section, we all have our own strong personalities. When I got my section job I hadn’t studied with BSO members. When I think about how I got into that type of musical career—I mean, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be a soloist. But I always wanted to get better. So the whole time I was a student I was always trying to improve, all the time, not knowing what I would do later, just always trying to improve. As long as I can remember, I didn’t pay too much attention to compliments—it’s nice that people give them, I appreciate them but they go out the other ear for my own sake. If someone offers constructive criticism I will listen—and I’m pretty hard on myself too. But I think that’s probably why I’m here now.
I think if you always try to improve yourself good things happen eventually. But I’m not sure I would focus only on orchestral excerpts if I wanted to be an orchestral player—it’s ironic for me to say that, in my position, but I’m a bit against that concept, because if you know what to do with excerpts but you can’t convince with your concerto, it’s not going to go well in the audition. I mean, the concerto is the first thing people hear and what will make it interesting is your musicianship. Musicianship is the key to everything, including excerpts. I think all the people who win jobs are very good musicians, and that’s really all that matters. So, like I said at the beginning, just try to keep growing and improve all the time, and good things will happen eventually.
Strasbourg-born cellist Blaise Déjardin was appointed principal cello of the Boston Symphony Orchestra by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons in spring 2018, having joined the BSO’s cello section in 2008. Previously, Déjardin was a member of the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. He was a founding member of the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry, and in 2010 he founded the acclaimed Boston Cello Quartet with three BSO colleagues. He has arranged numerous pieces for cello ensembles, earning four ASCAP Plus Awards and receiving commissions from Yo-Yo Ma, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and A Far Cry. In 2013 he launched Opus Cello, his online sheet music publishing company. He has served as artistic director of the Boston Cello Society since its creation in 2015. Mr. Déjardin has performed as soloist with orchestras around the world. In 2008 he gave the U.S. premiere of French composer Edith Canat de Chizy’s Formes du vent for solo cello. A dedicated chamber musician, he spent two summers at Ravinia’s Steans Institute for Young Artists. He holds a first prize in Cello with highest honors from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique of Paris, as well as a master of music diploma and a graduate diploma from the New England Conservatory in Boston. His main teachers were Philippe Muller, Laurence Lesser, and Bernard Greenhouse. Mr. Déjardin made his debut with orchestra at age fourteen performing Haydn’s C major concerto at the Corum in Montpellier, France. Among his numerous awards and honors, he was awarded first prize at the Maurice Gendron International Cello Competition and was also the youngest prizewinner at the 6th Adam International Cello Competition in New Zealand. In 2007 he made his Paris recital debut at Le Petit Palais as a laureate of the program Declic supporting emerging young soloists in France. He has taught privately and at the New England Conservatory and Tanglewood Music Center.