By Cristina Schreil
“We cellists sort of have a frustration with Mozart,” says Blaise Déjardin. The principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra notes how the composer didn’t write any major sonatas or concertos for cello. “If you discover Mozart [as a cellist], it’s through chamber music or through orchestra, but music students in conservatories won’t spend months digging into a Mozart sonata—it just can’t happen for cellists.”
With his latest record, Déjardin hopes to rectify that. Déjardin and conservatory pal cellist Kee-Hyun Kim (of the Parker Quartet) perform Déjardin’s arrangements of two Mozart duos originally written for violin and viola (K.423 in G and K.424 in B-flat), and his variations on “Ah vous-dirai-je Maman” (aka “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) for piano. It’s the debut record for Déjardin’s sheet music label Opus Cello, a sheet music company.
The impetus behind the project began, fittingly, with a New Year’s resolution. The two cellists celebrated one year. “We made a decision to record this album and to get it done. And now, it’s done. It’s really exciting,” Déjardin says. He recalls asking Kim, “Would you be crazy enough to do this with me?”
One “Yes,” one Kickstarter campaign, and many months later, the album is out. We caught up with Déjardin, phoning from Boston, who discussed the arranging process, how his knowledge of Mozart deepened throughout making this record, and why he hopes to inspire cellists everywhere.
What was the initial lightbulb moment for this album?
I really loved those Mozart violin-viola duos and I thought that would be a great style of music to record. It’s not gimmicky. It’s really deep, interesting music. And, it fits two cellos very well. It felt like a good idea to have the whole program around Mozart and to have a set of variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
As you may have seen on Kickstarter, I am grateful for the endorsement of the project by many star cellists, such as Gauthier Capucon and others, which shows not only the interest in the project but also the strong sense of community that binds cellists together, something that I really care about and is also part of my motivation to write for cello ensembles.
Why do people think Mozart didn’t write that much for solo cello? What are the theories out there?
I’m not sure. I’m really not an expert on the matter. I wonder if it’s maybe that he didn’t meet any amazing cellists. Haydn had some great cellists around him in his immediate presence and that’s why he wrote concertos for them. Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe he was too busy with other things.
Also, the cello was not that important yet, so it’s not too surprising. We’re all still a bit mad at him about that, but I feel like now we’re sort of correcting. The sheet music is available and I really hope that other people will pick up the music and music students will work on it and play it.
How did you choose and approach these arrangements?
I always wanted to have more cello duos and I thought about these Mozart duos and I thought, “Oh for sure someone must have done it,” because there’s a violin and cello version that people play regularly. And then, to my surprise, no one had seemed to have done it. So, I just got into it. I arranged and copyedited them very quickly.
For me personally, to have gone on this journey with Mozart, I understand him so much better. I think that’s also part of why having Kee-Hyun on board was helpful because he’s a chamber musician—a string quartet player—so he has all this experience with Mozart. Most of my [Mozart] experiences are through orchestral music, which is different. So, it was nice to approach it in a more soloistic manner and be more evolved into what his music means.
Could you offer an example of how you came to understand Mozart’s music in a deeper way?
First of all, I think his music has a lot of humor. It’s really fresh, all of it. I think it’s very smart, the way the harmonies change. It’s really just so subtle. And there’s a way I think that this music applies to exactly what was especially always my goal with the cello, which was to sound beautiful and musical without hearing any of the technique. That was our own challenge on the album because of course [this music] is very virtuosic, but you don’t want to hear that it is hard for cellists to play this. But, with Mozart, there’s also this idea that it’s very virtuosic but it’s all light — it all flows. That’s one thing I really felt working on this music is that it’s always flowing, it’s always going somewhere. You don’t want it to be bogged down by technique. Even if there’s depth, with Mozart it’s never heavy.
What do you love about arranging?
One thing I do like about arranging is that I get to know every piece I work on in all its smallest details, which means of course that by the time we started rehearsing with Kee, I did have a thorough knowledge of the construction of the pieces and how both voices worked together.
What was the next step of that process, building toward the recording?
Of course, we had to rehearse and I really wanted us to have the experience over time to play it in concerts. That’s usually how you grow into a piece and understand it better. So we had two concerts in the Boston area over a six-month period and that was very enlightening for us, in terms of our understanding of the piece.
I think it was a year between our first live performance and our recording session. So, we really had time to grow with the piece. When you read an album you really want a real depth to your message.
Who plays what part in each piece—are one of you primarily playing the viola and the other the violin?
We switch things around. I’m playing the violin part in the K.424 in B-flat major, and he’s playing the violin part in K.423 in G major.
How was the recording process?
It was very easy. We recorded with Jesse Lewis. He’s a former cellist and trumpet player. He’s very chill and relaxed, which is good to have in a recording session when you’re a bit nervous. And he’s also really able actually to pull the best out of the musicians.
[It took] about two and a half days in New Hampshire in a very beautiful modern hall. It felt very easy. Of course, it’s tiring because you give so much and it’s pretty intense. But, working with Jesse was very easy. He doesn’t let go when he should not let go and he’s also able to let us be free when we have to. I really always enjoy working with him. He gets a very special sound. Every feedback I got from the people who already heard the album was like, “Oh god, we feel like we’re in the room with you, it feels very intimate.” That’s something I really like about his way of caring for the sound.
What were particular things you cared about for this recording?
I think it has to go with the flow. For me, good playing is magical. You don’t hear the instrument you just hear the music. That’s always my goal. And of course, it’s challenging in this case because we do go up and down the fingerboard a lot. And the fingerboard is much longer than on the violin.
What was it like collaborating with Kee-Hyun, whom you’ve known since conservatory?
It was great. I think we both have strong opinions as musicians. We were really able to work together and I benefitted from Kee’s approach to intonation, which is something string quartets work a lot on, and on form. I feel like he was a really good match because it’s not easy to find a cellist who has some of the chops to play technically and also to bring in [ideas] musically. I’m really grateful he was willing to do that.