Interview with Cellist and Editor Valter Dešpalj
By Hans Jensen
The music world has lost a wonderful man: Croatian cellist Valter Dešpalj who died on April 9, 2023 was an eminent soloist and chamber musician as well as a much loved and highly respected pedagogue. In addition to his international performing and teaching career, Valter Dešpalj was an editor for Ovation Press who contributed expertly edited works to our body of orchestra excerpts and parts for cello.
It was through this collaboration with Ovation Press that I was fortunate to have had a number of great conversations with Mr. Despalj over the years. In my personal contact with him I could see that he was a wonderful human being and that he possessed a unique and vast knowledge about all aspects of music. Ovation Press has been incredibly lucky to have 38 beautiful arrangements from Valter Dešpalj that in addition to everything else he did will help keep his legacy alive.
We send our condolences to Mr. Dešpalj family, friends, students, and colleagues.
The following interview was originally posted in 2011.
Ovation Press: We are delighted to have you as an editor for Ovation Press. Your cello arrangements show a deep knowledge of the cello’s endless possibilities. When did you first become involved in arranging cello ensemble music, and why?
Valter Dešpalj: First, let me tell you that I am also delighted to collaborate with such a fine publishing house. It seems to me that Ovation Press is greatly contributing to satisfy an increasing demand for fine string music – especially music for cello ensembles, as they seem to be mushrooming nowadays because of the growing fascination with the sound of cello choir.
It has been now exactly 20 years since I started with my students a cello ensemble project called Cellomania. At the beginning, my aim was mainly pedagogic: I believe that students can hear more acutely some of their weaknesses, especially in intonation, when playing in such an ensemble than in a mixed string group. The project compelled me to start regularly writing arrangements for different cello formations. As the ensemble grew in quality and numbers (now there are twelve members) I could move to more demanding repertoire. With time my students became so good in this discipline that we started to play serious concerts and ultimately ended up performing at important festivals and big European music centers, also collaborating with the world famous cellists such as Mischa Maisky, Boris Pergamenschikow and Giovanni Sollima.
OP: I understand that last November you went to the The Third Amsterdam Cello Biennale held in Holland, where you gave a master class in addition to having some of your arrangements performed by the 12 Cellists from the Berlin Philharmonic. Can you tell us about the Amsterdam Biennale and the concert?
VD: The cello ensemble was the main theme of the Third Biennale, and the Berlin cellists were a special attraction. Needles to say, I was delighted to hear for the first time their live performances of my arrangements of Mas Que Nada by Jorge Ben and South American Getaway by Bacharach. (Before I heard these only on their EMI disc featuring Latin American music and also titled South American Getaway.)
Besides the Berliner, Biennale also hosted wonderful cello ensembles from the U.S., France, Holland and China.
Two years ago my Cellomania was a kind of cello ensemble in residence at the Second Biennale. My students will never forget that experience. I was so happy seeing them having time of their life while playing and attending concerts, taking lessons from great masters, socializing with other cellists from all over the world…At one point someone exclaimed: “This is a real cello paradise!” That was not far from truth. The Amsterdam Biennale is possibly the most vibrant, imaginative and innovative cello event today. It offers a lot of excitement and creates a wonderful atmosphere of communion between the cellists, young and old. And the number of fanatical audiences it attracts is really impressive!
OP: What are some of the issues that concern you when making cello ensemble arrangements?
VD: My concerns begin with choosing the right piece of music, a piece not only to my liking, but also being suitable for the new medium in sense of character, sonority and playability. Choosing the right key, if transposition needs to be done, is also important. Most important is good voice leading and transparency – no one wants to hear many celli as if the sound were coming out of a barrel. Everything essential contained in the original version I try to preserve, avoiding compromises as much as possible. However, if I felt strongly that the composer would not object, I would take liberties and use specific possibilities that cello ensemble can offer.
OP: Because of the cello’s large register (7 octaves) it is possible to create a wonderfully varied sound for cello ensembles. Have you ever used the entirety of the cello’s register in any of your arrangements? Is there a part of the register that you tend to favor as an arranger, and do you feel you have to counteract that favoritism as you write?
VD: I avoid extremely high register if I feel that it would sound unnatural and pretentious. On the other hand, if I find that an excess would be good as an effect, because of a specific dramatic or humorous character, then I would go pretty high. Normally, for the repertoire I have done so far, three to four octaves is sufficient. Counteract I would rather not – instead I would look for the right piece and right key (as I already mentioned), where everything more or less sits naturally on its right place. In order to preserve the bas line and thickness of the sound, I sometimes use scordatura, tuning the fourth string lower, rather than transposing the piece to a higher key.
OP: Can you say a few words about each of your following arrangements that Ovation Press has published?
- Rondo op. 6 by Beethoven for 3 Celli
- Prelude No. 13 by Chopin for 5 Celli
- Etude op. posth., No. 1 by Chopin for Cello and Guitar
- Suite from Album for the Young op. 39 by Tchaikovsky for 4 celli
VD: These arrangements typically reflect my approach. Beethoven’s Rondo is the second (and last) movement of an early sonata for piano four hands. In this arrangement the octave doublings (characteristic of piano four hand writing) are, of course, cut out. I think that the result is convincing, because the thickness of the cello trio sound compensates well for this intervention. While the texture of this arrangement is lighter than the original, the Tchaikovsky Suite is the opposite case: here the scope for cello quartet needs to be somewhat enhanced, because the original version (composed for piano beginners) is very light and easy. It was an interesting challenge for me, as here I could venture into some more imaginative solutions, considering density and tone colors of cello quartet. While doing that I was very concerned not to cross the fine line of good taste. As for the Chopin Prelude, it is transposed from F sharp to G major. Initially I wanted to arrange it for cello quartet, but then I realized that the left hand of piano part had to be shared by two celli, otherwise the pedal notes would not ring. Still, it must sound like one cello con pedale. The right hand, a beautiful three-voice choir, is shared by three celli.
The Chopin Etude arranged for cello and guitar is an easy, copy-paste case. Cello takes the right hand of the piano part, guitar the left. Transposition is from original F minor to A minor. Here the only real challenge was to find good fingering and bowing suggestions as to ensure a smooth line in the cello part.
OP: In addition to your cello ensemble music, I personally am delighted to utilize your arrangement of the Monti Czardas that Ovationpress publishes. It is a perfect piece to use for teaching, as it encourages students to play with great expression while playing quickly. The piece is suited perfectly for the cello. A number of my students buy and use this arrangement, and inevitably fall in love with it. Have you used this piece often with your own students? How did you envision the piece being utilized when you wrote it?
VD: I totally agree: the piece is suited perfectly for the cello and I imagine that with this edition it will gain more popularity among the cellists. I do use it with my students, especially for the purpose of expanding the sensuousness in the sound and a feeling of ease and abandon. I warn them, however, not to overdo with Gipsy mannerisms, as that could sound artificial – just as it would sound rather forced if a full blooded Gipsy player interpreted a Brahms Hungarian Dance like a classical performer.
OP: What pieces do you typically use with your students? Are there particular pieces in your mind that stand out as points of inspiration in your own writings?
VD: Wise choice of repertoire is of course important, but what is really essential is to use a piece, any piece, for explaining general technical and musical principles. That could be an etude, for example. Oftentimes students tend to learn just the notes without grasping the specific message of each etude. It is important to squeeze as much as possible out of an etude, primary goal being to learn the different techniques, but in no way should the musical structure, good sound, and phrasing be neglected. These aspects students often put aside, and the result of such attitude and habits is that the technical passages in the repertoire can be deprived of inspiration and sound mechanical.
For very young cellists the first years of study are decisive in many ways. Therefore the pieces have to be chosen very carefully and in accord with individual needs. Balanced diet, meaning a good proportion between classical and romantic or modern repertoire, is recommended. As they advance, we would wish that Mozart had written cello concertos, but in stylistic sense Carl Stamitz is a pretty good substitute. The Brahms E minor Sonata is perfect for developing opulent expression. To get the fingers move, Papillon by Faure I find very stimulating; not to mention all those wonderful virtuoso pieces by Davidoff, Popper and other cellists composers. Concerto No. 1 by Milhaud I often use as an introduction to 20th century concerto. As for my own arrangements, I like to use the Schubert Imprompty No. 3 (published by IMC) for developing the vibrato. Another one is Schedrin’s In the Style of Albeniz (published by Sikorski) – a very flashy piece with a lot of character.
OP: Ovation Press most recently published your arrangement of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto for cello ensemble. Can you tell us a little about this arrangement?
VD: Last year I toured with my ensemble along the Adriatic Coast, performing at summer festivals from Dubrovnik to Osor. For that occasion I wanted to refresh our repertoire with a more substantial piece. I chose the Brandenburg 6. The possibility of arranging it had been intriguing me for a long time. This time I really felt motivated. I transposed it in G major (a third lower), as to get a more brilliant sound and make it technically more user friendly. I assigned the top parts to two soloists, while the middle parts had to put mutes on to imitate the original sound of violas da gamba. One player from the bass section (and that was I) had to tune C string a fourth lower and assume the role of the double bass. At the end, we got the full blown sound of a baroque string orchestra and it turned out to be an excellent opening of our program which also included romantic and modern pieces.
The arrangement for Ovation Press I made is for six parts (which are contained in the original version). The middle and bas parts can be doubled. These days, however, I am making a special version for 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic, where I will divide the solo material between all of them, making responsorial effects. With ensemble of such quality it is possible to arrange it in such way, because each of the members is a soloist par excellence.
OP: In all your years of playing with cello ensembles, what are the funniest or most unusual incidents that you remember?
VD: One of the funniest incidents happened during the tour that I just mentioned. We had an important rehearsal at the International Center of Jeunesses Musicales in Grožnjan, a tiny, very romantic town. Some of us came to the concert hall a little earlier, luckily escaping an incredibly heavy rain that just started to pour. The others were unfortunately caught up in a hopeless situation where even an umbrella could not help. The rain would never stop. Just as I was about to resign and to call off that important rehearsal, the latecomers suddenly burst into the hall – and we burst out laughing when we saw them appearing totally wet, wearing only swimming suits and carrying cellos plus plastic bags filled with their clothes! It was a rather hilarious, the way those youngsters showed their dedication to our cause.
Valter Dešpalj’s arrangement of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, performed by his own students