Alison Balsom on pushing boundaries, new commissions and her passion for education

Author: Nina Large

Alison Balsom is undoubtedly one of the world’s very finest trumpeters.  She is passionately dedicated as performer, curator and educator. Nina Large talks to her about signing with Askonas Holt and where her journey is taking her.

Congratulations on your new signing with Askonas Holt. What do you hope to do in this next chapter?
Askonas Holt is the perfect fit for where I am right now in my career and going forwards. Nothing compares with the thrill and satiation of going on stage with a great orchestra and playing at that level, collaborating with other musicians who are so life affirming and inspiring. I want to do more of that. It is always amazing to work with charismatic people from whom you can learn so much, about how to play your best as a musician and also about becoming a more interesting human being when you go through those experiences. There are old-fashioned views about what a female playing the trumpet can do or be and I feel there is still a bit more work to do there. It’s all very exciting.

You chose to play the trumpet as a 7 year old girl – what is it that captivated you so much?
I realised from early on that it wasn’t just a trumpet, it was a voice that could seemingly do anything. One of my very first experiences was hearing a recording of Dizzy Gillespie. It was just so sassy and clever and sort of primal, emotional but hugely cool, and all these things alongside all the glory and splendour the classical trumpet can offer.

It can almost sound like a different instrument depending on who’s playing it. I think I realised that from an early age that the limitations would only be from the player rather than the instrument itself.

Was that something you focussed on very early on, that you had to find your own unique sound?
Yes. You need to have your own unique message to convey. Of course it’s really important to have your own distinctive sound, and the trumpet is one of those instruments where you can – it is very much about the player’s lips, embouchure and breathing. Even more important than that is your idea of what you want to sound like, your idea of yourself.

What’s so interesting is when I describe my musician friends and their playing, you find that I’ve described their personality, and vice versa. Once you have mastered the instrument and practiced your scales and done all that endless technical work, after that the instrument becomes an extension of you.

The last few years have seen you really explore the trumpet and its capabilities. You’ve recorded and continue to perform all the major repertoire and your most recent disc was your own arrangements of French works from chanson, through 20th Century and jazz.
It’s one of the most versatile instruments; you can play almost any genre. I used to be jealous of those musicians who had Brahms and Beethoven but actually now I see the limitation of the repertoire as an opportunity to go down paths that people haven’t explored before and I relish that, rather than feel everything I’m performing and recording has been done brilliantly by others many times in the past, which can feel like the case for some. I am trying to create a career that is totally original.

Having recorded the major works I have been able to go on a bit of mission to see how far I can go in terms of boundaries and repertoire. For the Paris album I made the arrangements with the iconic jazz trumpeter Guy Barker.  We wanted to come up with a whole new sound world; I’d say it’s quite filmic in some ways.

So are there other things that you want to arrange?
Oh it’s limitless. I try to go to as many concerts as I can to hear what else is going on and I can’t stop myself constantly wondering if this moment or that movement might work for me, especially with chamber music. I am always trying to find things to get my teeth into.

Is there an area of the repertoire you feel most happy in?
I just did a concert last week at the Wigmore Hall with Trevor Pinnock and whenever I am playing baroque music I do think ‘I could happily do this for the rest of my life’. But in reality I probably couldn’t because I would run out of things to play in the end. I have really eclectic taste in music and it’s interesting to see where that takes me, and of course the new repertoire that’s always emerging.

I suppose you could say the ‘industry’ struggles to pigeonhole me: is she a Haydn person, a Gershwin person, a Baroque person or a crazy contemporary concerto person? – I relish that!

In 2013 you produced and starred in a unique musical and theatrical show of Handel and Purcell which you created for the company at Shakespeare’s Globe and The English Concert. That took you into new territory…
Yes, it’s really one of the things I am most proud of in my career.

I was devising an English Baroque album with Purcell and Handel on period instruments and I thought it would be a good idea to find unexpected things to do on the Baroque trumpet, which meant transcribing and arranging.  With the Baroque trumpet you only have the notes of the harmonic series, so to arrange from the violin, voice or oboe is incredibly tricky. I spent 9 months experimenting with a huge variety of music, changing keys, voices or sharing phrases, and I’d often go down a path trying to make something work and then would have to give up when it was ruining the original. But I think we got there in the end!

I was really over excited when things did work since this was the first time it would have been played on the natural trumpet. Trevor Pinnock helped guide me in the right direction on many occasions; it had to be about the intention of the music above all. I thought the acoustics and covered stage of Shakespeare’s Globe would be the perfect place to perform. I then made it my mission to fundraise for the huge and ambitious -and at that stage ambiguous project, and convince the Globe to do it, which joyously resulted in a summer of shows of 45 people on stage and in full dress!

Trevor Pinnock has been an important figure for you
One of the first classical recordings I ever heard was the English Concert with Trevor Pinnock performing Brandenburg 4, 5 and 6; the 1983 recording. I was about 10 and I remember listening to it on my Walkman and thinking ‘I don’t know what this is but it’s mind-blowing’. The fact that I know Trevor personally now is still thrilling.

Of course you have also had plenty of concertos commissioned including James MacMillan’s Trumpet Concerto. At last years Proms you performed a new commission by Qigang Chen and this year you’ll premiere a new concerto by Guy Barker.
I am careful about commissioning. People send me new works all the time and I do look at each one but with new compositions you have to really trust the composer musically. It takes time, energy and a certain amount of duress to learn them.

Guy Barker’s concerto is really interesting – very challenging, very contemporary. We met through our time in Uganda with the charity Brass for Africa and we started to talk about Messiaen and Stravinsky and their jazz influences.

This year I am also playing Gershwin at the last night in Hyde Park which for me is the perfect contrast to Guy’s big work a few days earlier. It’s a really nice example of being trusted in two slightly different musical directions.

You’re also doing a Bristol Prom
Yes, and this is going to be extreme! I didn’t want to just do the usual Baroque to Contemporary to Gershwin arc of a trumpet recital. It’s a late night prom with six of us; three trumpets, keyboard, drums and double bass.  I wondered about how far back we could go? The trumpet is one of the most ancient instruments; they even found one in Tutankhamun’s tomb. In 45 minutes we will play three nine foot long ancient wooden trumpet-like instruments called Navalars, then some C trumpet which I play all the time, the piccolo trumpet because it is very stylised and sweet, and the Baroque trumpet, because it’s a much more raw and visceral sound bringing us so much closer to the Baroque era as far as I’m concerned.

It’s going to finish with what’s pretty much a house rave looping our trumpet sounds with beats and various unlikely sounds these six instruments can make. It’s a little bit of a tongue in cheek version of a recital but the director Tom Morris has given me space to explore as much as I want, so…!

What do you hope to achieve with a concert like this?
I hope to achieve two things – that some people will discover the trumpet as something they like even if they weren’t sure before, which is of course the ultimate compliment. I also hope that people coming because they think they are going to like one thing, will also end up discovering something new and being drawn to that too.

And I think this is our duty as musicians – I feel incredibly privileged to know the joy of music and I want to share that. I think anyone can have that if they are exposed to it in the right way, and of course if people come to the concert because they trust Tom Morris’s Bristol Proms then it’s a perfect opportunity to educate.

Music education is something hugely important to you
It seems to me it should be a universal right to have the chance to make music. If you don’t have music in your life, it’s like life is in black and white.

I didn’t have a privileged education. I went to a normal primary school in my little town. I had subsidised music lessons and I played in my local band and there were inspiring mentors and teachers that meant I was able to succeed, but now it can be  almost impossible, without a tremendous amount of luck and possibly a privileged education. I think that’s completely wrong.

Education should not be just about getting a job. It should be about making a whole rounded human being and music is a huge part of that.

It’s extraordinary to me that this isn’t what everyone thinks. There are a lot of countries whose education system is worse than ours. It’s a lamentable situation that in the UK we are even having to fight for this.

You’re an ambassador for the incredibly successful BBC Music initiative Ten Pieces which has already engaged over half of all UK Primary Schools
Yes, it’s a hugely important scheme and reaches so many people at the age when they soak up everything that life has to offer. I remember being inspired by classical music at a similar age like it was yesterday, and hopefully many children might feel like that about one – or more – of these Ten pieces. Now they are extending the project to also include secondary schools, which is brilliant. It can be really heart breaking when you see young children who love it, and have been successfully engaged by the idea, but then have no opportunity to follow up at that crucial time when they really need something more, a network of support to continue on this path, at a time when in other ways they could feel a little lost as young teenagers.

I love that the BBC have decided to make a decisive, independent move on behalf of our entire country and step in to make a difference and an impact on a national scale. It’s fantastic. They’re putting music at the top of their priority list and there are a number of remarkable large-scale plans they have in mind for the next few years, which I hope to be part of.

The final movement of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto is one of the ten pieces for the next two years of the scheme. I have played it hundreds of times but every time something new reveals itself to me through the extraordinary texture or phrasing Haydn employs in this work. We’ve just recorded it  – it’s really quite up-tempo and zippy this time round!

Last year you gave a talk called Music as Healer at the Royal Albert Hall’s conference “Imagining the future of medicine.” Your work with Brass for Africa was a good case in point
If the people who make the decisions about the priorities in education in the UK went to Uganda and saw how many young people’s lives are being absolutely transformed through the power of playing music, things would be very different in this country.

The orphanages, centres and prisons that Brass for Africa work very closely with are full of street kids who have been through unimaginable horrors or hardships. In these new homes they play in the band every day – it completely changes their personalities. One particular girl who I’ve got to know is now teaching younger children, and has become a particularly strong, inspiring young woman, and it has everything to do with her flourishing as she grew up playing the trumpet and being a valued musician in her band. The band becomes the door to everything else in life for so many of these young people.

Music and music education are hardly anything to do with becoming a musician professionally. Music means we are able to express ourselves, build self-confidence, self-discipline, to socialise properly, to have empathy with people who think completely differently, and connect with people who are completely different.  These are universal lessons we must learn to be whole human beings. I think everyone can learn them through music.

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