Spanish trumpeter Manuel Blanco’s first solo CD, released in 2017, was titled Fearless – a title that’s far from hubristic. The CD is an eclectic mix of periods and styles, ranging from staples of the repertoire like the Haydn trumpet concerto to Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s jagged 1954 concerto and jazz arrangements of standards like Nobody Knows the Trouble Ive Seen. It speaks of a performer unfazed by the technical and stylistic demands of such versatility.

But Blanco shot to fame after coming first in another test of his presumably steely nerves –the 2011 ARD International Music Competition, the largest and most prestigious performing competition in Germany. Blanco won first prize in the trumpet category that year, with an unprecedentedly high score and following in the footsteps of other renowned trumpet players like Maurice André and David Guerrier. And before this triumph, Blanco was no stranger to the nerve-shredding dedication required by prestigious competitions, winning Spanish and international awards, which helped establish him as an orchestral player of repute with some of the most renowned bands in the world, including both the Councertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Blanco feels that his extensive experience as an orchestral trumpet-player is still a huge part of his life as a soloist and is a key part of his success. He strives, he tells me, to foster a connection with the ensemble he is working with as a soloist, to be “part of the orchestra”, not a kind of dictatorial outsider saying my way or the highway. This attitude is something embedded in the ARD competition and one of its distinctive features. Competitors are required, in the semi-final, to perform a solo concerto with chamber orchestra and no conductor, leading the performance themselves, a superb test of musical collegiality and the ability to stage a live dialogue in performance with other musicians.

© Marc Campa
© Marc Campa
What kind of impact did winning the competition have on his career, I ask Blanco? Winning the competition, he says, was the moment he realised he could pursue a solo career. Up to this point had spent most of his time as an orchestral player: at just twenty-one years old he already had a chair in the Spanish National Orchestra (as a fan of Real Madrid, he was doubly thrilled to be there in the Spanish capital). And winning first-prize led directly to recording his first CD with Decca. He also relished another key opportunity that the competition brought along: tutoring the trumpeters in the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, with whom he had previously played himself.

The competition, because of its scale and prestige, offers those participating a unique opportunity for testing their musical mettle against other world-class players, and also offers networking opportunities, the chance to meet agents and music executives looking to sign up the next big talent. But he also sees it, because of its demands and discipline, as a much more serious pathway towards to a solo career when compared to the glossy, marketing-heavy careers of other soloists today, who are, he says, “80% marketing and social media”.

And there was no let-up afterwards either: trying to balance the demands of an orchestral chair with a burgeoning solo career was “crazy…lots of stress…and it was travel travel travel.” And committing to a solo career meant some tough choices: Blanco turned down a chair at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, who got in touch with him after the competition.

Seven years on, what are his outstanding memories of the competition? “It was a very challenging programme… and I was so busy with my work as an orchestral musician I didn’t have much time to prepare!” During the competition, he tells me, he eschewed opportunities for interview and spent his time in his hotel, practicing and studying. He felt he had to distance himself from the other competitors, even if he now has a number of friends that he met in the course of the competition. But there were plenty of highs as well: getting four curtain calls after his semi-final performance of the Hummel Trumpet Concerto in E Major, for instance.

I ask him what makes the ARD competition distinctive. “It’s the most prestigious competition… it’s like the Olympic games”, he responds, and there is a sense that the judges are always pushing you to do more. “You have to be technically perfect, like at the Olympics, but also offer something different, very creative and individual. They are looking for a soloist, a sensation, not just technical perfection.”

Contemporary music is a huge part of the ARD too, and another thing that makes this particular competition special. Competitors must perform a specially-commissioned piece in the semi-final, alongside something from the standard repertoire, and there is a special prize for the best interpretation of contemporary repertoire. He remembers the commissioned work in 2011 – Mark Andre’s iv 6 b – presenting special technical challenges that had his fellow competitors scratching their heads (microtones and a dynamic that never rises above pianissimo).

In the second round Blanco also performed Luciano Berio’s vertigo-inducing Sequenza X for trumpet and amplified piano resonance: a 22-minute musical decathlon of unusual tonguing techniques and seventeen top Cs on the final page. (He was one of only two competitors to choose it, and it was a performance that particularly impressed the jurors, he tells me). Blanco remarks that forcing competitors to engage with this kind of repertoire is hugely educational and has made working with new music much easier. It has prompted him to work more closely with composers and performers of contemporary music.

Winning the competition wasn’t just a boon for Blanco personally: he sees a wider significance in a Spanish musician receiving such a prestigious award, as his sense is that Spanish classical music-making doesn’t have the prestige of other European countries like France or Germany, and competitions like the ARD are an excellent way to get musicians from a range of musical backgrounds onto the international map. And there’s no doubt he’s become a celebrated figure at home too: the Spanish newspaper El Pais named him one of the top one hundred celebrities of the year in 2011. Even his brain has achieved a degree of celebrity, subject to a study by a cognitive neuroscientist based at the King Juan Carlos University interested in concepts of genius (“high performance”) .

But Blanco feels refreshingly down-to-earth, even if one senses a burning intensity and almost monastic dedication to his work behind his cheery, playful manner. I ask him about “genius”, and whether it’s a useful term to throw around in contemporary classical music, or if he can think of himself in those terms. He’s certainly had plenty of extravagant praise directed his way: “Manuel is an enigma for me, a miracle, I don’t understand him”, said trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich, and the marketing for Fearless certainly doesn't play down the idea of the smouldering, charismatic demiurge. 

“I’m normal”, he replies resolutely, and describes himself as “disciplined”. Genius is reserved for the big names: Mahler, Haydn, Mozart; Blanco seems to feel he’s just a hard worker. “My best friends aren’t musicians”, he notes, which must surely help to keep things in perspective. Maintaining his talent is down to the simple things: he looks after his diet, he says, and likes running, cycling, and tennis. It’s not surprising to learn that the irrepressible, lithe energy of Blanco’s playing spills over into other aspects of his life too. One wonders, after meeting Blanco, what kinds of trumpet players will be formed in the heat and pressure of this year’s competition – though no doubt they will be poised for bright futures too.

For more information about the ARD Competition visit their page on Bachtrack.

This article was sponsored by ARD Competition