A brass act: Star trumpeter Alison Balsom is set to perform in Gabriel at the Globe and Latitude festival
Balsom has a burning ambition to break through the barriers to her music being heard.
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Wednesday 17 July 2013
"It's definitely isolated," Alison Balsom says, of life as a classical trumpeter. "And it's definitely a bit freakish. But I think in a good way. I feel a duty to do it." Because it reached its valved fruition as an instrument after the great era of concertos that violin and piano soloists take for granted, the trumpet is unloved in the classical world. Balsom, by contrast, is loved a great deal,and is that rarity, a star trumpeter.
But the 34-year-old is far from satisfied. When we meet, it's between rehearsals at the Globe Theatre, the day before the opening of Gabriel, an ambitious hybrid of playlets, poetry and music showcasing the valveless trumpet, and its 1690s golden age in the compositions of Purcell. A week into its run, she will then dash to Suffolk to perform Purcell to passing rock fans at the Latitude festival. Though modest in person, she has an underdog's burning ambition to break through the barriers to her music being heard.
"It's a great and relevant way of presenting classical music in these times," she says of Gabriel. "It's not dumbing it down in any way, yet it's presenting it in a completely different way from the 19th-century concert hall, where you walk on and play several movements, don't allow anyone to clap in between, don't look at the audience and walk off. It's the opposite of that. Sometimes you do a rehearsal with a symphony orchestra on stage, and the lights are down and you can't really see the seats. And then when the people come in, it's exactly the same. With this, you'll very much feel like you're part of the performance, and that it wouldn't be the same without you."
Balsom is used to converting other instruments' repertoire to the limited one available to the trumpet. Gabriel, which she conceived and co-produced, goes further, building a whole world around it. In collaboration with playwright Samuel Adamson, the Globe's creative director Dominic Dromgoole and Trevor Pinnock's pioneers of authentically played Baroque music the English Concert, the piece places Purcell's music in the context of the seething city where it was composed.
"It's very London," she says. "It's got the energy and the dirtiness and the excitement and the talent and the bawdiness and the sublime aspects of London in the 1690s. It's a wonderful description of that time, trying to show the variety. As we've also tried to do at the same time with the trumpet. It's an instrument that can be heroic, but it can also be very intimate and conversational and subtle. The trumpet of the time, this natural, very simple trumpet with no valves, was used very much like a human voice. That's why for me it's such an attractive sound. It's unimpinged by technology."
Gabriel has taken Balsom wholly out of her comfort zone, mingling in the world of actors. She even had to raise the money to pay the orchestra. "It was humiliating," she says bluntly, "and one of the least fun things I've ever done. I had a very full schedule of concerto performances around the world, and I have a three-year-old son as well [from a relationship with ENO music director Edward Gardner which ended in 2011], and I didn't feel comfortable about asking people for money."
Balsom is also thrilled to be taking a brief break from Gabriel at Latitude. She is no stranger to rock festivals, attending her first aged eight, when she wandered across the field from her grandparents' house in Knebworth to watch Queen. "I'm so pleased to be invited to play music that's unashamedly nothing to do with rock music, although I love rock music. It's just, 'Do your thing', because that's what people want. They just need it to be good, and it doesn't matter what the genre is."
"I probably am stubborn," Balsom admits, considering the often lonely path she's carved for herself. She talks wistfully of her adolescence playing with the brass band in her home town, Royston, in rural Hertfordshire. "I'd be terrible and I'd always mess around and be told off," she remembers. "I really miss it. I wish I played in a band now."
"The things that I found hardest about being a professional musician are nothing to do with the music," she adds, of the life she's actually chosen. "They're to do with everything else. The logistics, the travelling, the lifestyle." But the magic which convinced her to become a professional trumpeter when her parents took her to see Hakan Hardenberger when she was nine remains close at hand.
"Trevor Pinnock is one of my all-time musical idols," she says, remembering a recent example. "And when we were recording my new album Sound the Trumpet in St Jude's Church in Golders Green, I got in early one morning. Trevor got in early too, and he was just standing up at the harpsichord playing some Bach to himself. He didn't realise there was anyone else there, and sunlight was streaming in, and I had tears, because he's such a great musician, and he was just making pure music. It was one of those occasions where you think, 'I couldn't possibly do anything else.' Those moments make life worth living."
The two years she has worked on Gabriel have been similarly satisfying. "My mum thought I was being ghoulish," Balsom laughs, "but I said to her, 'If I die after press night, then that will be the thing I'm most proud of doing in my life. I'll be happy with that.'"
'Gabriel', Globe, London SE1 (shakespearesglobe.com) to 18 August. Alison Balsom plays the Waterfront stage at Latitude on Sunday
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