Alison Balsom:"I find it kind of amusing that people think I do crossover, because I've never done any of that music. Lots of people might buy an album because they heard it on Classic FM, but that doesn't make it crossover. It does, as far as I'm concerned, do exactly what I was trying to do—which is to popularize the instrument without ever dumbing down.
The Top Brass
Too many ballgowns, and not enough Beethoven. Alison Balsom talks about life as a classical trumpeter
By Erica Jeal
Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert ..." Trumpeter Alison Balsom sighs as she reels off the names—and in that sigh lies the reason why the trumpet is an unlikely Cinderella on the classical concert podium. "How amazing it would be to have music by these composers!"
The lack of much in the way of classical music to play is the problem with the classical trumpet—and the reason why, as a classical soloist, Balsom is one of a relatively rare breed. By the time the modern trumpet had been perfected—with valves enabling the player to produce every note of the chromatic scale, perfectly in tune—most of the composers who wrote the kind of concertos that make pianists' and violinists' careers were dead. There is no great romantic warhorse by Tchaikovsky, Bruch or Mendelssohn, no trumpeter equivalent of Liszt or Paganini to have lent the instrument a patina of romantic mystery. What, then, is to be done with the trumpet as a serious solo instrument?
Balsom isn't sure she has the answer, but she is the U.K.'s best hope of raising its profile. And, let's get this over with: that's despite—or perhaps in part because of—her gender. When during the World Cup the Daily Mail wanted a trumpeter to demonstrate how to get more than one note out of a vuvuzela, it was Balsom they called on. Within her field she stands out simply because, according to stereotype, trumpeters are loud, beer-sodden and male. Not, however, in Balsom's own experience, from her childhood in the youth music groups of Hertfordshire onwards. "I played in a brass band since I first started, when I was seven, and there were loads of girls. Some of my best friends from that time are now in principal positions in the London orchestras." Until quite recently that included Balsom herself, who reluctantly left the London Chamber Orchestra as her solo career took off.
Now she is on to her fifth disc for EMI: 18th-century concertos by Vivaldi, Albinoni and other Italians, all originally written for oboe or violin, adapted by Balsom herself, mostly to accommodate the different capabilities of a violinist's bow and a trumpeter's lip: "You can't play continuously for several minutes the way a violinist can." She has already recorded the two acknowledged gems of the classical trumpet repertoire, the concertos by Haydn and Hummel—and that disc was one of the New York Times's picks of 2008.
Alison Balsom performs Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Libertango’ during Last Night of the Proms '09, at Royal Albert Hall. BBC SO's David Robertson conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus.
In concert, however, she just as often finds herself asked to play four-minute wonders. Balsom's previous album, Caprice, is a whole program of these, and good listening it makes, too, thanks largely to some whirlwind display pieces by composers such as Astor Piazzolla. "His Libertango is the perfect encore. I've played it hundreds of times. But my challenge is to get the serious stuff done."
In that mission she is following the Swedish virtuoso Hakan Hardenberger, who was her inspiration for wanting to become a soloist when, aged nine, she first heard him in concert, playing the Hummel concerto at the Barbican. "I remember every moment of the day, even that we stopped at KFC on the way! It wasn't really about the fact that he played the trumpet, it was just that it was a wonderful performance. So when I found myself at the Barbican a couple of years ago playing the Hummel, I was so happy. It was a really special feeling."
Balsom would go on to become one of Hardenberger's students, and some of his zeal for commissioning new work seems to have rubbed off. She's especially enthusiastic about British composers and is due to premiere Seraph, a new work by James MacMillan, with the Scottish Ensemble next February. She also talks of her affinity with "people like Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews, Huw Watkins, Mark-Anthony Turnage. They understand the instrument and its subtleties. All the trumpet players today—it's almost as if we all play different instruments. A composer would create something quite different for me than for Hardenberger. That's why it's incredibly exciting to work with the composer. There's not that many of us, and it feels like treading a path that's never been trod."
In fact, much of her solo career has felt that way. "I remember at the beginning, that was the biggest challenge: what do I do now? My teacher was wonderful, but he was an orchestral trumpeter, and he said he couldn't advise me. So it was a case of finding the way for myself."
First, she auditioned for support from the Young Concert Artists Trust. "They represented me for three years, watching over me before I went out into the big bad commercial world, and that's when I learned what was going to work and what wasn't. I started to work out how I could find a way of playing the trumpet as a solo instrument, where the audience were interested and I felt there was integrity in what I was doing."
That integrity is more important to Balsom than some might think, clocking her gala appearances and her successes at the commercial back-scratch that is the Classical Brits (she was 2009's Female Artist of the Year). "I find it kind of amusing that people think I do crossover, because I've never done any of that music. Lots of people might buy an album because they heard it on Classic FM, but that doesn't make it crossover. It does, as far as I'm concerned, do exactly what I was trying to do—which is to popularize the instrument without ever dumbing down. Even if I'm playing a very light gala concert, I'll still play a whole concerto rather than a single movement, and I'll play it exactly the way I would if I was playing with the Concertgebouw. But I suppose people think I do crossover just because there's a glamorous photoshoot."
In which case, why not ditch the ballgowns on the album covers? For our interview, Balsom is in leggings and jumper, casual but immaculate: how about doing the CD covers that way? "I would love to. But unfortunately I seem to be a small pawn in this big chess game where there are albums to sell. I quite often ask them to please just send trouser suits [to wear for a shoot], and I'll turn up and there'll be 25 red Dynasty-style ballgowns on the rack. But you've got to choose your battles, particularly when your time is important."
Alison Balsom, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat, 1st movement, David Robertson conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra
Since earlier this year, that time has been more precious than ever: in spring Balsom gave birth to her first child, Charlie. Has motherhood changed how she sees her career? "Not too much. Even before, I was thinking I don't want to be orbiting the globe for the sake of it. I'm lucky that with the work I do, there is lots of preparation at home. Though I really underestimated that, with the baby—I thought I could practice while he's asleep, but I need to play loud."
Charlie's father is Edward Gardner, music director of English National Opera; he and Balsom met while working with the Colorado Symphony a few years ago. It should be a PR dream, but the pair are resisting attempts to turn them into a golden couple of classical music. "We don't have any plans to work together in the future, and that's good—if the other is free they can come along and support." Or babysit, perhaps.
But for now, Charlie is playing with his grandmother, Gardner is rehearsing at ENO, and Balsom is off to sort out her visa for a country where she can garner gala-style audience enthusiasm for serious classical repertoire, and nobody will cry crossover: Brazil. "It's lovely playing to an audience who screams like it's a pop concert when you play a Haydn concerto!"
Alison Balsom recording and discussing her Italian Concertos album: ‘I wanted to do something a bit more playful, and fun. And it is more virtuosic in a technical sense, because all the pieces I’m recording are for the violin or for the oboe. They’re not C trumpet concertos in their original form.’
The Critical Perspective: WQXR-FM, New York City
Alison Balsom, Italian Concertos. Album Of The Week, 11/08/2010
Brass players have long had a reputation as beer-swilling, raucous good old boys that give the back row of the symphony orchestra an air of a locker room. That is slowly changing, but even so, the young English trumpeter Alison Balsom remains a singular figure.
It's not just that she's blonde, slim and stylish; it's the depth of her musicianship that makes her stand out along with the ability to make the solo trumpet seem as natural as a solo violin or cello. Those qualities emerge on Balsom's new album, Italian Concertos, which focuses on concertos originally composed for violin or oboe by Vivaldi, Albinoni, Tartini, Cimarosa and Marcello.
Of course, the trumpet was a staple of the Baroque era, but it was a radically different instrument back then. The sound that you hear in Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto is that of a natural trumpet, with its lack of valves, and therefore limited range of keys. Here Balsom uses the full chromatic range of a modern instrument to often spectacular effect.
In the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor, which Balsom transcribed herself, her bright tone, crisp articulation and tasteful trills make you forget it was originally composed for violin. The same is true for the Tartini Concerto in D, whose bravura, fanfare-like octave leaps seem custom-made for the trumpet. Balsom's transcription of the Albinoni Violin Sonata Da Chiesa in D minor shows her ability to navigate both quicksilver passages and supple legato playing in close succession. Marcello's lyrical Oboe Concerto in C, as with the other works originally for oboe, has a particular sense of poise, perhaps because there are already built-in places to breathe.
Balsom has enjoyed a good deal of media attention in the U.K. and had some breakout success last year when she performed in the Last Night of the Proms before an international BBC television audience of 200 million. While still a relative newcomer to the American listeners, this album provides a fine calling card.