in: News & Features

July 26, 2012

Alison Balsom To Debut with Landmarks Orchestra


BMInt is pleased to recommend to its readers the sole serious classical music concert among the 25 free scheduled events planned for the Boston Globe’s and WGBH’s collaborative Boston SummerArts Weekend: The Boston Landmarks Orchestra will be appearing on Sunday at 4:30 in Copley Square for a free concert with an impressive guest trumpet soloist, Alison Balsom. The program, unlisted on the event brochure, includes Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, Tomaso Albinoni’s Concerto after Sonata da Chiesa in D, Handel’s Water Music Suite No.1 in F, Oskar Lindberg’s Old Pastoral Hymn from Dalarna, George Gershwin’s Lullaby for Strings, Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, and Shenandoah under the direction of guest conductor Christopher Warren-Green.

Recently named ‘Female Artist of the Year’ for the second time at the Classic BRITs, the London-based trumpet artist Alison Balsom also recently headlined one of classical music’s most celebrated concerts – The Last Night of the BBC Proms – which reached its biggest ever global television audience of an estimated 200 million. In December 2010 Balsom went on to make her U.S. television debut with the Orchestra of St Luke’s on The Late Show with David Letterman a venue few classical artists have occupied. Alison performs a wide range of recital and concerto repertoire, from Albinoni to Zimmermann and performs on both modern and baroque trumpets. An interview follows:

BMInt: You have been widely celebrated on the Continent and in England, you’ve played with the LA Phil and the National Symphony here, but your bio also mentions an unusual appearance with the Orchestra of St. Luke on the David Letterman show.

Alison Balsom: David Letterman was listening to me on a live radio interview and suggested that he would like me on his show. So I obviously took him up on the offer!  It was an amazing opportunity, since classical musicians don’t often get to play on shows such as that one. First I thought I should play something quite light, or maybe a jazz piece, especially since Letterman has such an amazing house band, but then I decided actually I should play some hard-core classical music — on the piccolo trumpet with an orchestra, since that’s what I do all the time. I felt that would be exciting since it was also going to be totally unexpected.

I’d never played with Orchestra of St. Luke before, but as is so often the case, when you meet musicians, you just click immediately. I knew of their excellent work, and of course they were also quite pleased to appear on the Letterman show, and we had a really good night together playing an Allesandro Marcello oboe concerto from the 1700s which I had transcribed.

Does the fact that you’ve now been on American TV make you a crossover artist?

Well, I don’t play crossover music. If you’re playing all classical repertoire and happen to do so on TV, that doesn’t make you a crossover artist. But some crossover is amazing, such as what Wynton Marsalis and Yo Yo Ma do. That’s crossover in the very best sense since they’re bringing all of the best parts of all of the different genres rather than any kind of watering down. That can lead to collaborations of very high quality. That’s something that really interests me.

The solo trumpet repertoire is not very large. Perhaps that’s why you’re making transcriptions as well as considering other music.

I’ve already played all of the great classical trumpet works many times, and I’m really not a trumpet fan as much as a classical music fan. I’m always looking for new music to play. I don’t care if it was written for my trumpet; I just want it to be good music. Classical music may only be a small niche in the world now, but the reason it’s been around for as long as it has is because it’s so amazingly good. And it’s going to be around for the next 200 years. But if I can steal from the classical repertoire of other instruments, there’s almost a limitless supply.

Does that mean that you don’t want to have to play the Purcell “Trumpet Tune” ever again?

In the right place and done in the right way, this is still very satisfying music. And I’ve just recorded a disc for EMI Classics which comes out this fall called “Sound the Trumpet, the kings and queens of Purcell and Handel” with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. I still find this repertoire absolutely beautiful. I had to do a fair amount of arranging to make this all work musically on a valveless trumpet in D, but I’m very proud of the result.

But you’re not afraid to improve something like Tomaso Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto after Sonata da Chiesa in D so you can play it on your modern trumpet with a modern orchestra this weekend?

I wouldn’t call myself an improver; my main objective is simply not to spoil it. You’re leaving the musical ideas intact, and if the transcription brings a new color to it which people enjoy, then that’s wonderful. In this case, the piece couldn’t have been played by the trumpets of Albinoni’s times, since those instruments didn’t have valves. I didn’t have to do any major surgery on this piece, I’m pretty much just playing the oboe part, but I did need to do some arranging since Albinoni didn’t give the oboist any breaks.

Your standard bio says that you have a very distinctive sound. Is that something words can describe?

I try to use the trumpet in the most vocal way possible. I hope that comes across in my playing with the Landmarks Orchestra on Sunday, as well as in my playing with the pop ensemble of Suzanne Vega on Saturday. I haven’t spent much of my time listening to other trumpet players except for jazz players like Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. I’ve never tried to emulate what anyone else was doing. I was really listening more to their distinctive phrasing and the ways in which they made coherent musical sentences. I hope that really comes across in my playing. I think I can really hear my personality in my recordings. Sometimes when you describe peoples’ musical style you are really describing their personalities. The best playing should be an extension of the performer’s character. That’s how we find our own voice.

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