Interview with William Blank

Music Festival 2021: Beethoven and flower petals – the Swiss composer on his premiere at the 2021 Music Festival.

»Sometimes something completely unexpected emerges – because for me, a composition always has an unknown dimension,« admits the Swiss composer William Blank. On the programme for the opening concert of the Music Festival this year is the premiere of his new Triple Concerto, performed by a top-class line-up.

You composed your Triple Concerto last year on the occasion of the Beethoven anniversary. To what extent do you refer to Beethoven’s famous Triple Concerto in your work?

That’s not an easy question to answer, of course. More than two centuries separate us, and music has changed so much in that time. Beethoven’s sense of form and his musical language are unique. His Triple Concerto is a fully independent trio with orchestral accompaniment that amplifies the impulses of the three soloistic voices. I find the idea fascinating and I want to draw on that. However, in my work, the orchestra performs a key role and forms a complex tonal background, from which the soloistic voices rise again and again.


Beethoven composed his Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano. Why did you choose a clarinet rather than the piano?

Firstly, I feel that this instrumentation has faded far too much into obscurity during the last century, and secondly, I thought it was important not to try to copy exactly what Beethoven did so successfully. I was certain from the very beginning that I’d include the violin and cello – not least because of my close collaboration with Jan Vogler. For the third instrument I then looked for a sound that was as broad as possible and that blended in well with the string instruments, and I realised that the clarinet was the ideal choice. But I didn’t want to go entirely without a piano – so there’s one playing as part of the orchestra.


You’ve named your concerto »Alisma« – does that have a meaning we should be aware of?

Yes, it means something very specific: »Alisma« is a delicate water plant with a long stem that always has three petals – three soloists in a triple concerto. And each flower has six stamens in the centre. So I structured the work in three parts, each of which has six sections – with a total of 369 bars. Ultimately, I find the power of this plant – which rises out of the calm water on its long stem – a beautiful image for the structure of a concerto, in which solo voices appear to hover above the orchestra, the fertile soil.

The water plant »Alisma«
The water plant »Alisma« © Wikimedia Commons

When you hear a new work being performed by an orchestra for the first time, are there any surprises for you?  

Even though I can imagine a lot of it very clearly beforehand, for me, a composition also always has an open and unknown dimension. That is probably because I try to push the boundaries of form and sound a little further with every new work. As a result, not even I can fully predict the result. Sometimes something completely unexpected emerges and that can even exceed my own expectations. And of course, sometimes I find the effect less than satisfying. In those cases I revise individual parts – ideally before the premiere!


As a composer, do you like to be there for rehearsals for a premiere?

From my own experience as a conductor, I don’t like it when a composer is “too present” at rehearsals. That often disturbs the direct and productive contact between the orchestra and conductor. So when I’m in the role of the composer, I try not to interfere too much – and if I want to say something, I’ll do that during the break or after the rehearsal.

But on the whole, of course, I hope that the music speaks for itself and that words aren’t even necessary – because they are often inadequate for describing or explaining music in any case. 


What would be the best compliment for you from a listener after the concert?

Your music moved me.

Interview: Julika von Werder (23.04.2021)

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