may 2012

Alison Balsom in repose: ‘I like the idea of taking a path that no one has trod before.’

The Art of Excellence

Celebrating her tenth anniversary as a recording artist, Alison Balsom picks up where Maurice André left off and approaches new horizons as a classical trumpet soloist

By David McGee

Slender, blonde and beautiful, Alison Balsom is one of the most glamorous artists in contemporary music, and she’s taken her share of press sniping apparently for the crime of being attractive. She shrugs it off: “You know,” she says with a sigh on the phone from England, en route to her parents’ house, “it’s just all part of the fun of it now. You understand it doesn’t really mean anything.”

At the 2009 Classical Brit Awards

It is genuinely amusing to encounter those who take umbrage at a beautiful woman doing what no other male or female has done since the 1960s--to stupendous acclaim and influence, mind you--in validating the classical trumpet as a solo instrument. Not that Ms. Balsom has shied away from looking gorgeous and/or provocative on occasion: she arrived at the 2009 Classical Brit Awards (where she became the first British woman to win Female Artist of the Year) in a sparkly white micro mini-skirt that turned more than a few heads and got the press revved up again. She, however, has never lost focus. When she’s off the road she rehearses diligently, and for hours, every day, alone, and challenges herself to learn new, daunting pieces. From a lifetime of dedicated study of her instrument with some of the finest teachers on the planet, she has emerged as the musical and spiritual heir of one of her principal influences, the foremost classical trumpeter of them all, Maurice André, a coal miner’s son who became a virtuoso credited with having transformed the trumpet from a workaday cog in the back of the orchestra into a seductive solo instrument in front of it (and is honored elsewhere in this issue, in a posthumous tribute—he died on February 25--that was inexplicably omitted from our March issue). Upon his death, Mr. André was lauded in the New York Times by Gerard Schwarz, a former co-principal trumpeter of the New York Philharmonic as “the only [trumpeter] to have a real major career as a soloist and have a real following from audiences all over the world.”

Ms. Balsom too has a “real major career” as a soloist, and she shares Mr. André’s determination to connect with audiences (“He was certainly not a purist,” Mr. Schwarz told the Times. “If he felt that it would be more exciting to take the last few notes of any concerto up an octave, he would do that. He really cared deeply about the audience, and he really wanted to make them enjoy themselves.”). You can add “all over the world” to the audiences she wants to connect with, as, having long since conquered Europe, she sets her sights on her first tour of the United States in Spring 2013. All in all she has honored the towering André’s barrier breaking instincts by tackling a varied, eclectic repertoire and creating trumpet solo showcases out of classical compositions written before the valve trumpet was even invented, as well as expanding the trumpet repertoire further by commissioning original works for the instrument. Still, she remains humbled by Mr. André’s achievements. “He invented the classical trumpet as a solo instrument,” she asserts. “It all begins with him. The Baroque music he favored may not be quite so popular any more, but the beauty of his playing, the soul that comes through his instrument, is simply remarkable, and certainly a beacon for me.”

seraphThis year marks Ms. Balsom’s tenth year as a recording artist, and she’s capitalizing on the anniversary with two new album releases. This past February saw the release of Seraph: Trumpet Concertos, featuring the slumming artist pictured on the cover in blue jeans and a tank top, trumpet in hand. Casual, hip and contemporary as she appeared, the look was apropos of the album’s repertoire. Drawn not from the classical canon or from the Latin sources she has explored so vividly in the past, Seraph illustrates one of the aforementioned goals of the Balsom career in its reliance on fresh repertoire expressly composed for solo trumpet. For this project, a year in the making, she features new works by contemporary composers James MacMillan (“Seraph for Trumpet and String Orchestra,” a world premiere, which, though traditionally framed, takes some adventurous, exhilarating turns, especially in the spirited third section, Marcato e ritmico); Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A Flat Major, a dramatic, moody and sometimes dreamy work infused with elements of Armenian folk music; Toru Takemitsu's “Paths,” a piece combining elements of Eastern and Western musical philosophies; and Bernd Alois Zimmermann's haunting, technically challenging Trumpet Concerto in C Major, which happens to be a showcase for everything Ms. Balsom brings to her instrument—the breathtaking virtuosity she makes sound easy and the palpable emotion suffusing her tone. In a brief profile of the artist in The Guardian of January 7, 2012, Kate Kellaway succinctly and accurately described Seraph as a journey “filled with regret, instability and moments of inwardness.” To prepare the listener for the exultations of the Zimmerman Concerto, she comes out of left field with a deeply contemplative trumpet-and-piano rumination on “Nobody Knows” (“nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…”), which she arranged with her pianist Tom Poston. She also includes “Nobody Knows” on her second album release of 2012, the retrospective bearing her own name as its title; in the liner notes to the latter collection, she says “Nobody Knows” sits in stark contrast to the grandeur of the concerto, but “it felt like it was an important moment to explore the simplicity. I enjoy the space that is created around the melody.”

Alison Balsom on the making of Seraph, interviewed by Lucy Coward on Classic FM

In a video interview with the artist on Classic FM, host Lucy Coward remarked on what she heard as a very personal album. Ms. Balsom agreed, explaining how the “organic process” of making the album shaped its character.

“It’s basically taken a year to make,” she said, “in terms of deciding how it’s going to be. It started off as one thing, which was going to be four concertos, and sometimes we’d change our minds about which ones they were going to be. As the months went by we recorded one thing, we did the world premiere of James MacMillan’s ‘Seraph.’ Then we decided afterwards that we should really put that world premiere recording from the live concert on the disc because it had that sort of energy you’d never get again after the world premiere. And that was last February. So that was quite a while ago. Some of the other stuff, the unaccompanied trumpet music, we recorded just a few weeks ago. So it’s been growing. Which has been a really lovely experience, and it’s not normally like that. You usually choose your repertoire, go into the studio, record it and then promote it. Whereas this has been, as usual for me, trying to find a way of doing things slightly different from what other trumpet players are doing. I’m really, really happy with how it has turned out. It’s got these three big concertos—starting, middle and finish—and instead of having four concertos we thought we’d have three, and in between, almost like palette cleansers, have something very, very different. So the first of those pieces, which is on a different scale, is by Takemitsu, and it’s called ‘Paths.’ It’s the story of walking around a Japanese garden and seeing the garden from various different viewpoints. It’s a really subtle, beautiful, quite introverted piece. I thought it would be a lovely contrast to these big concertos. Then the other small piece is called ‘Nobody Knows.’ I wrote it with my pianist Tom Poster, and it’s very, very simple, based on the spiritual ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.’ This is the prelude to the huge concerto that comes at the end of the disc, which is really the climax, a concerto by Zimmerman, again titled ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.’ It’s such a challenging, enormous, amazing work it seems like a lovely idea to put something that was really simple and got you into that sound world just before it. I’m delighted with the story, the journey the CD now describes. I didn’t really know it would be like that when we started.”

A clip from Richard Dunkley’s unreleased documentary about Alison Bolsom, A Musical Life, posted at YouTube by richarddunkley

It’s safe to say Alison Balsom, now in her 33rd year, didn’t know a lot of things that have come to pass in her career “would be like that” when she started. As a seven-year-old lass in Hertfordshire, attending the Tannery Drift Primary School, she was enamored of the school’s brass band and fell in love with the trumpet for no special reason other than it being an interesting, and unusual, instrument in her eyes. “I loved the sound of it, I loved the size of it” is how she summarizes her first impressions of encountering would one day be her mealticket. Her parents—her father was a builder—didn’t push her into music, but did not discourage her growing interest in it either. As she said in our phone interview in early May, “I’m kind of proud of saying I chose the trumpet on my own and pursued it on my own, without encouragement from anyone else. My parents were not musicians who brought me to it. I like the idea of taking a path that no one has trod before.”

Then, as a nine-year-old, came a life altering event: her parents took her to the fabled Barbican Centre in London (the largest performing arts venue in Europe) to a concert by the towering Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger. He played the Hummel concerto, one of the basic texts of the trumpet, along with Haydn’s trumpet concerto (the other basic trmpet text), and when the evening was over young Alison had set her sights on being a classical soloist herself, undaunted by the field being dominated by men or by the odds on being able to make a living wage as a professional musician. She never had a Plan B, she says: “It was all I cared about, all I worked at, and after a while the only thought was getting better at it, not considering any alternative to it.”

She has never lost focus. When she’s off the road she rehearses diligently, and for hours, every day, alone, and challenges herself to learn new, daunting pieces.

Even now, 24 years after first hearing the Hardenberger Hummel, Ms. Balsom says “I remember what it sounded like as if I had just heard it yesterday. It was glorious. I remember every moment of that day, even stopping at KFC on the way.” And what was it that drew her to Mr. Hardenberger’s version? Much as she would later say of Maurice André’s playing, it wasn’t technique that got to her, but the trumpeter’s expressiveness, the soulfulness in his sound, so much so that she lauds the trumpet’s versatility as making it “one of the closest instruments to the human voice.” Not the least of her personal cherished memories is of taking the Barbican stage herself in 2008 and playing the Hummel concerto on the very boards where she first heard it in her youth.

First stirrings: from her 2002 debut album, Music for Trumpet and Organ (with Quentin Thomas), Ms. Balsom assays Bach’s Allemande from Partita II

She then dove in, studying trumpet at every level of her schooling: her website even lists her musical training path, from Tannery Drift School (trumpet teacher: Bill Thompson); to Greneway School (from ages 9 to 13, with teacher Adrian Jacobs); to the Royston Town Band (ages eight to 15, in which she played cornet and flugehorn); to Meridian School (ages 13 to 16); to the Guildhall School of Music (ages 13 to 18, with Trumpet Professors John Miller, Steven Keavy [Baroque Trumpet] and Paul Benniston; Ms. Balsom herself is now a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall), ahead of matriculating to Conservatoire Nationale Superieur a Musique de Paris (2000, with Trumpet Professor Antoine Curé); the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (2001, with Trumpet Professor John Wallace), to the aforementioned apprenticeship, from 2001 to 2004, with Håkan Hardenberger.

Surprisingly, perhaps, she says her experience with Mr. Hardenberger was less about acquiring skills of a higher degree than, for lack of a better term, about understanding the spirituality of playing, of going beyond, or deeper into, the written composition in order to express her innermost feelings, in all their variety. Indeed, the greatest joy in listening to Ms. Balsom's playing is in feeling its powerful humanity, the urgency of feeling to which her technical virtuosity is subservient.

Alison Balsom performing Astor Piazzola’s Libertango at Last Night of the Proms ’09, at the Royal Albert Hall, with  David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus. Originally recorded in 2006 for her Caprices album, the tune is part of the artist’s new self-titled retrospective.

Still, a huge challenge loomed: none of her esteemed teachers or advisers seemed very savvy about the nuts and bolts of pursuing a soloist’s career. She looks back on the beginnings of her musician’s life, even before she was a professional, and sees a series of fortuitous, serendipitous breaks—meeting the right people at the right time, being in the right place at the right time to get some advice that advanced her ambitions, winding up exactly where she should have been at a particular moment. As per the latter, the signal event in launching her professionally came when she auditioned for and was accepted into England’s Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT), a truly laudable charity that offers itself as a proving ground, a stepping stone, if you will, to young artists it considers as having great potential to become professional musicians. Subsidized completely by individuals, trusts and foundations, it offers its charges wisdom in the ways of the music business’s cold realities, effectively acting as managers and encouraging long-range planning.

During her three years with YCAT, Ms. Balsom was well prepared for what she calls “the big, bad commercial world,” and credits the Trust with giving her a place to learn “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."

alisonYCAT did its job in other ways, too: it was via the organization that EMI Classics discovered her in 2001, and a year later released her first album, Music for Trumpet and Organ, which became a template for the varied explorations on her five subsequent EMI Classics albums, which are succinctly summarized on her second 2012 release, the tellingly titled Alison Bolsom, released on April 3. A simply stunning debut, Music for Trumpet and Organ finds the artist assaying—with authority—everything from Sweelinck's "Variations on 'Mein junges Leben hat ein End'" to Petr Eben's "Windows"; from a "suite" of excerpts from Act IV of Purcell's "King Arthur," played on the baroque trumpet (basically a trumpet with no valves) to flugelhorn renditions of "Shenandoah" and George Thalben-Ball's "Elegy.” Her “Shenandoah” is a quiet masterpiece of sustained yearning—or love—for a place called home; for Americans its evocative, wistful melody (in the song “Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri”) speaks of specific places and people in a rustic past, but to Ms. Balsom it evokes visions of countryside scenes in many lands and serves also as “a great way to show off the voice” of the instrument, a flugelhorn having a softer, more velvety sound than a trumpet.

alisonThe new Alison Balsom album should whet the appetites of those classical fans that might be unaware of the scope of the artist’s work. In addition to the solemn majesty of “Shenandoah” and “Nobody Knows,” it includes her ventures into Latin music by way of the album opening “Escualo” by Astor Piazzola (from 2006’s Caprices, one of four tunes from that album the artist selected for Alison Bolsom) to Piazzola’s popular “Libertango” (also from Caprices); an Albinoni work, Concerto after Sonata da Chiesa in D minor, from her 2010 album, Italian Concertos, but with an arrangement based on an oboe concerto as played by Maurice André—“he made it sound so heartbreakingly beautiful, I thought, I just have to play this on the trumpet,” Ms. Bolsom says in her liner notes. “It was actually the first piece by a long way that I chose for my Italian Concertos album because that slow movement was just so haunting.” There’s an opulent Bach Trio Sonata; a lush, introspective Lindberg Andante, based on a Swedish traditional folksong; and a beautifully restrained, understated Debussy “Syrinx,” originally scored for flute. Ms. Balsom plays it in the original key, which, as her liner notes observe, “sits high on the trumpet but keeps the musical colors close to that of the flute. It comes in handy when depicting the mythology between Apollo and Pan and playing Debussy’s characteristically passionate and sensual music. When I play it, I just really try to imagine I’m playing the flute and how that instrument can so seductively depict this mysterious journey. And it’s a really mystical, wonderful way of approaching the trumpet, which is not often done.’”

Alison Balsom performs the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, one of the basic texts of the classical trumpet repertoire, at Last Night of the Proms ’09, at the Royal Albert Hall, with  David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus.

Along the way the awards have rolled in, too: Best Female Artist, Classical BRIT Awards, 2009, 2011; Classic FM Listeners' Choice Award, Classic FM Gramophone Award 2006; Young British Performer, Classical BRIT Awards, 2006; Feeling Musique Prize for quality of sound in the 4th Maurice André International Trumpet Competition; Concerto finalist in the BBC Young Musicians Competition, 1998.

No matter her glamour index, from the start Ms. Balsom’s aim has been to advance the trumpet as a solo instrument and maintain integrity in doing so. Not for her the crossover grail. As she told the Guardian’s Erica Jeal in a 2010 interview focused on the Italian Concertos album, "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."

Alison Balsom on the making of her 2010 album, Italian Concertos with works by Vivaldi, Tartini, Rossini, Albinoni, et al.

Adds Ms. Jeal: 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."

This then is the education of an artist, minus one final course, required, not an elective: as much as she’s had to learn about concertizing for the public, so has she gained experience in performing in the rigorous setting of the recording studio. With six diversified albums under her belt, she’s no longer a studio neophyte but it’s been a trying process to gain the equilibrium she now feels when it’s time to cut another album. "No one's ever asked me about working in the studio before," she said when queried about her learning curve as a recording artist. "It's so important and such a different world in there, and I didn't know what to expect when I started. It's so challenging on so many levels, not the least being the sheer physical challenge of recording--you know, as a trumpeter you have to be concerned about your lip; you simply cannot play for ten hours a day; you have to pace yourself."

Asked if she can listen to her recordings and hear a moment when she went somewhere she hadn't been before as an artist, hear a turning point when she can say she found herself as a studio artist, she first said she's not in the habit of going back over her old recordings, seeing as how her aim is to keep moving forward. But she did admit that the moment in question has arrived--"it's on my next album, that's when it happened." About which more will be told this coming fall, when the CD is released.

Alison Balsom on the making of her third album, Caprice, featuring works by Mozart, Piazzola, Paganini, Lindberg, Debussy, Bach, Rachmaninov, Tomasi, Arban, de Falla.

Ultimately, she has a simple mantra. Everything about the way Alison Balsom conducts herself says this rings true. To wit: “My big passion is music, and playing music as well as I possibly can, to be as good as I can possibly be. And I’m sure that will carry on for the rest of my life.”

Alison Balsom is available at

Follow this link to our tribute to Maurice André.

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