Lotta Wennäkoski on her Flute Concerto Soie: ‘You can hear the silkworms swarming’

Lotta Wennäkoski (c) Maarit Kytöharju

The Finnish Lotta Wennäkoski needs images to compose. Her Flute Concerto Soie is inspired by the tactile qualities of cotton, linen and silk. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and flutist Kersten McCall present the Dutch premiere in March 2019. I interviewed them for Preludium, the magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra.

There is an infectious comradery between the composer and the soloist during a double interview via Skype. Almost like symbiotic twins, Lotta Wennäkoski (1970) and Kersten McCall (1973) complement each other’s answers. They vehemently express their agreement when the other person is speaking, interrupt each other without ado and show exuberant mutual admiration. Wennäkoski: ‘When I heard Kersten was willing to play my Flute Concerto for the CD recording, I was overjoyed. Wow, he agreed!’ McCall: ‘It’s such an impressive piece, the moment I heard the recording of the premiere, I was hooked!’

Wennäkoski composed Soie in 2009 for the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and its first flutist Petri Alanko. They gave the successful world premiere in the iconic Rock Church (Temppeliaukion kirkko) in Helsinki. Three years later the piece was chosen as a recommended work by the Unesco International Rostrum of Composers. But when plans were made for a CD recording, Alanko appeared to have health problems. McCall: ‘He asked me to take over and I immediately said yes, even though I did not know the piece. I trust him blindly’.

Personal interpretation

Despite the all too ample acoustics of the Rock Church, McCall recognized Soie as a masterpiece: ‘It is modern yet very accessible, without being simple.’ He also appreciates the fact that Wennäkoski attaches great importance to the performer’s own interpretation. ‘As a flutist, you are given room for expressiveness. Although everything is precisely notated, you are not forced into a straitjacket, but have a lot of freedom to unfold your own sound and express your emotional response to the music. This is characteristic of all great works: you can convey your deepest personality, speak with your own voice.

Conversely, Wennäkoski is pleased with the performance of McCall. ‘For me it is important that musicians find their own way into my music, that they do what they do best. Kersten has a unique sound, even though I find it difficult to describe exactly what attracts me. There is a kind of shine or glow over it, but it still sounds clear and brilliant. His way of playing is so characteristic that he moulds my concerto, as it were, to his personal musicality.’

Swarming silkworms

McCall adds: ‘Take the last movement, Soie. You can approach it in an aggressive way or very poetically, Lotta’s score offers these various options. ‘I will try to play it as lyrical as possible, but who knows I may discover a completely different side of my personality. After all, silk is not just soft and smooth.’ But Wennäkoski did have this softness in mind when composing: ‘I was not so much interested in its shining quality, but rather in the feeling of silk. Especially the soft rustling movement of silk bedding, which stands for subtle things and intimacy.’

She understands McCall’s remark about a possibly aggressive interpretation, however: ‘I have also included the silkworms. The thought of their swarming inspired me to give the flute ultra-short notes that follow each other quickly. By moving your tongue up and down at lightning speed, a somewhat hard, dense texture is created. That sounds like lbdlbdlbdlbd… and this in rising and falling figures. Thus you can hear the worms moving, as it were.’ McCall: ‘When listen I can imagine this well, but while playing I am too busy with the notes to think of such ideas’.

Titles and images

Wennäkoski: ‘You should not take these too literally, mind you. I wouldn’t want to force anyone to listen to it in this way. But I need such images when I compose, they bring me musical ideas. And by the way, I have to call a piece something. I could have named it Game of Galaxies or whatever, there must be a title.’ But wouldn’t her music sound different in the latter case? ‘Of course! I often have the feeling that people can relate more to concrete images, but it’s just that. It only indicates a mind-set, it doesn’t have to be metaphysics’.

The French title of her Flute Concerto springs from such a concrete image: ‘It’s a kind of word game. I had the idea of using different kinds of fabrics and was looking for material that would give me strong images. Then I realised that soie, the French word for silk, is pronounced in Finnish as soi-è. That is close to our word for ‘sound’, specifically the sound produced by an instrument.’ She not only named the last movement after this word, but also used it as the title of the whole piece.

‘For the first movement, I thought of something light that bulges up in the air, with flapping movements. That reminded me of a gauze cotton scarf. The nice thing is that voile in French indicates both that fabric and the sail of a ship.’ Graceful, swelling and again weakening upward and downward movements indeed create an illusion of billowing sails, with catchy little glissandi of the solo flute.

The second movement is named after the rough structure of coarse linen, lin gros in French. With a duration of only two minutes it is considerably shorter than the other two movements. Wennäkoski: ‘This is because it was meant to be a pivot point, in which I only wanted to use modern, so-called extended techniques. That turned out to be much more boring to write than I had expected, so I finished it soon. Moreover, it requires a lot of the flutist’s embouchure, it is very tiring. If I had made it longer, the subtle sides of the last movement might be lost.’

Nonsense words

McCall: ‘To be honest, I don’t find it that tiring. It is true, however, that because of the quickly changing ways of blowing the mouthpiece gets very wet, causing my lips to slip away. For example, I speak nonsense words while playing, making my part sound mysterious and virtuoso. The orchestra’s wind players also participate, so it seems as if you hear a crowd of people talking very quickly.’

Wennäkoski adds: ‘They may hum, whisper, hiss, talk or shout, but it must seem as if the sound is coming from their instrument’. McCall: ‘There are also many breathy sounds, Lotta enriches the orchestra palette with beautiful new sound effects. Because the second movement is so deviant, short and powerful, it works like a scherzo.’

Although Soie is considered a Flute Concerto, there is no question of the usual ‘struggle’ between soloist and orchestra. Wennäkoski: ‘Flute concertos can be very difficult, because the solo instrument threatens to drown in the overall orchestral sound. That’s why I deliberately put a lot of air into the orchestration. Because of these balance problems, the flute plays little in the middle register.

McCall: ‘Often you can hardly tell who does what. In the last movement there is a passage in which I have the same material as the tutti flutes, where we all merge. Towards the end I even play a unisono duet with the oboist. But the special thing is: even when I am embedded in the whole, I remain the soloist who tells the story.’

20, 21, 24 March Royal Concertgebouw
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Thomas Hengelbrock / Kersten McCall, flute
Lotta Wennäkoski: Soie, Dutch premiere


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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5 Responses to Lotta Wennäkoski on her Flute Concerto Soie: ‘You can hear the silkworms swarming’

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  4. theaderks says:

    Thanks Clare, wish you were in Amsterdam, I have a spare ticket for 20 March!


  5. Clare Shore says:

    This is a wonderful piece, Thea! It makes me really want to hear the concerto.


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