Trumpeter Alison Balsom will hit the Haydn notes
BOSTON — “There’s no reason in this day and age someone shouldn’t do something because of gender,” said English trumpeter Alison Balsom at a fancy restaurant on Copley Square the day before her debut late last month. She was speaking about young girls playing brass instruments, traditionally a male domain. But she needn’t argue the point: Her success proves it.
“Hopefully that won’t be an interesting story very soon. When I started there weren’t that many female brass players, and now there are, which is great.”
Balsom, 33, excites audiences by blending flawless technique with nuanced interpretations, often of music she arranged for trumpet. On Tuesday, she makes her Hollywood Bowl debut, joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guest conductor Nicholas McGegan in an all-Haydn program, on which she’ll perform the composer’s popular Trumpet Concerto.
Trumpeters haven’t the broad repertory that pianists, violinists or even cellists do. So Balsom — who calls the situation “a great and constant challenge” — has to be inventive in her search for new material. In addition to arranging pieces originally written for instruments other than trumpet — often oboe or violin — she commissions new music. A particular favorite is the Scottish composer James MacMillan’s “Seraph,” written for Balsom and given its premiere by her and the Scottish Ensemble last year.
Balsom insists that the commissioning process is especially difficult because trumpet soloists are tonally and expressively unique. “We might as well be playing different instruments,” she said, referring to the individual timbres of fellow trumpeters. “So there has to be a special affinity between composer and performer. I think Thomas Adès and John Adams would be a good fit, and it would be a dream to have them write something for me. They would understand the need to show the trumpet in an unexpected and compelling light. Other composers might not be able to.”
Her next recording, “Sound the Trumpet,” looks backward, to music by Purcell and Handel. “It’s the album I’m most proud of,” she said. Scheduled for release in the U.S. on Oct. 23, the CD — her eighth for EMI — is Balsom’s first on the natural trumpet, the precursor to the modern valve instrument used in symphony orchestras and by jazz musicians.
“I wanted to show the full palette of what the natural trumpet can do,” Balsom said. “It’s so much like a human voice. It can do incredibly intimate and subtle, almost vocal-like, things. I arranged music written for other instruments, which is incredibly hard because there are no valves. The process took several months.”
The effort pairs her with the English Concert and its former music director Trevor Pinnock, an idol of Balsom’s who was initially skeptical of its success. “I wanted to know why didn’t she just do it on the modern trumpet,” he said. “I wanted her to prove that this was the right approach, but by the second meeting I was quite hooked and wanted to help build it up.”
Balsom began playing trumpet at age 7; by 10 she wanted to be a soloist. “Doing anything else for a job seemed pointless to me,” she said. “Music was even more important to me than playing the trumpet, but I’d realized that to play tunes you had to be a soloist. Otherwise, you’re just part of the orchestra, and I wanted to be playing all the time.”
She dates her career from 2002 and not long after was named a BBC New Generation Artist. The designation allowed her to perform on the radio with various BBC orchestras. “It was totally unglamorous,” she recalled, “but it was a fantastic basis for a career. They don’t ask you back if you’re not sounding good.”
Since then she has earned near universal acclaim, enthralling audiences and fellow musicians in equal measure. The Northern Irish pianist and conductor Barry Douglas has performed with her on several occasions, including at the summer festivals he runs. “She makes the trumpet sound like many different instruments,” he said, “which is a very difficult thing to do. The trumpet can be rather two-dimensional, but she brings many colors and astonishing breath control, especially in the lower register. You wonder how she does it.”
After her Bowl date, Balsom returns to Los Angeles in April, joining the Scottish Ensemble at Disney Hall. Their program will include music by Handel, Vivaldi and Albinoni.
“The trumpet is an extrovert instrument,” Balsom said, explaining a seeming inconsistency of her success. “I’m not an extremely extroverted person, but you can’t half-play the trumpet. If something goes wrong, everyone knows. So you have to relish taking a risk.”
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.