Alison Balsom: The top brass

With a deal from EMI and a Brit Award under her belt, the trumpeter Alison Balsom is determined to prove her instrument can be feminine. Sholto Byrnes hears how
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The Independent Culture

As a child of nine, Alison Balsom heard first a tape of Dizzy Gillespie and then later a recording of the Swedish trumpeting phenomenon Hakan Hardenberger. She knew from then on that the trumpet was for her. "It was instinctive, just straight away," she says, sitting outside the Barbican in London, a place she knows well from her years studying at the Guildhall School of Music. "I was very lucky to hear people like them and not anyone who was vaguely mediocre."

Balsom, now 27, is returning to the Barbican as part of the Mainly Mozart Festival, performing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. She comes back, only a few years after leaving this prestigious conservatoire, as the winner of the Young British Classical Performer of the Year category at the 2006 Classical Brit Awards, at which she beat the much-talked about young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti.

She has a three-disc deal with EMI (the next recording in the series, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, is out in September), and has performed across Europe and the US. Critics have praised her "ravishing sound and utter control". In her hands, wrote the St Petersburg Times, "the trumpet rivals the human voice for expressivity and tonal colouring", while the Financial Times noted her "pol-ished virtuosity".

She certainly has a gorgeous sound and an amazing technique. One suspects that her good looks have been no hindrance to her career either; because if being a full-time trumpet soloist is rare, being a female trumpet soloist is almost unheard of. "I never considered that being a girl was a disadvantage," she says, "because I was brought up to think that I could do anything if I wanted to do it. It's only now that I realise from the outside it looks funny to people."

The gender barriers have mostly been broken down in the orchestral world, but some residual sexism still exists, not least in quite fixed ideas about which instruments are suitable for male and female players. "I was very protected from that for a long time," she says.

"If there was great competition in my year at the Guildhall, or if older players were jealous and wanted to put me down, to my mind it wasn't about being female, it was about the trumpet. It's only in the past few years that I've realised how many glass ceilings there are for a female.

"Of course," she continues, "people see the trumpet as a very extrovert instrument, but it's not necessarily a masculine one. When you hear some people play the violin it's not feminine, it's aggressive. And Maurice André played the trumpet heartbreakingly beautifully. Every instrument can have both sides."

André, possibly the foremost trumpet soloist of the 20th century, is clearly a great inspiration. It takes little prompting for Balsom to drop his name into the conversation.

"What he did was absolutely extraordinary," she enthuses. "Nobody had heard the trumpet play the things that he played. He played the trumpet repertoire, but he also played the oboe repertoire and that of other instruments if he felt he could make it work convincingly. He is still such a big character. He just makes people love him from the first time they hear him."

Widening the repertoire, going beyond the familiar baroque works, and demonstrating the versatility of the trumpet is a major aim for Balsom. "What I'm most passionate about is continuing what Maurice André did," she says. "He lifted the trumpet on to another level. I'd love to be somebody who could take what he did and carry on with it."

Diversifying is one thing. Balsom has, for instance, dipped into jazz, recently performing with the pianist Django Bates at the Spitalfields Festival in London, although her part was fully scored; she professes to not being good enough to improvise in public. "The more I do it, the more I realise it's like picking up a different instrument," she says.

But she has no time for the crossover classical music so beloved of record-label marketing departments. "It's fair enough, I suppose," she says, "but it's got no depth to it. People aren't going to get the satisfaction out of it that they would from something less superficial. I'd listen to Kylie Minogue if I wanted that kind of stimulation."

Classical music, she says, is not something that should necessarily be immediately accessible. "It's not popular music. It can be hard work, like going to an art gallery. You can't necessarily just soak it all up, or do nothing and expect something back. You've got to put in an effort. And maybe you have to put in years before you can appreciate it properly."

For Balsom, once exposed the appreciation was instant. As a child in Royston, Hertfordshire, she played in a school band, and then went to the junior Guildhall at weekends.

Aged 10, she heard Hardenberger perform, and decided that she wanted to be a trumpet soloist, replacing an earlier ambition to be an astronaut. Later, at the Guildhall proper, she claims not to have stood out in particular. It was when she spent a year at the Paris Conservatoire that she began to blossom.

"The training there is much more soloistic," she says. "Even to get a job in an orchestra you have to do a solo audition." In Paris, she won the Feeling Musique Prize for quality of sound at the Fourth Maurice André International Trumpet Competition. "That was very high profile and probably helped me," she says.

Since then, her career has taken off, with recordings of Bach, music for trumpet and organ, and in May the Classical Brit award. None of this appears to have gone to her head. Her family seems to have helped: "They had told me before that I'd won," she says, "so that I had something to say. But my mum, who's always tried to make sure that her children don't get disappointed, said, 'oh, you probably haven't won, maybe they just got confused'."

Balsom's main concern was for her performance at the ceremony. She says: "I hope lots of people who haven't heard of me will go - oh, she won a Brit, she plays the trumpet, and then go and listen to the trumpet."

She lives in south London. "I've bought a house in Winchester," she says, "but I'm never there. Most of the time I'm living in Clapham with my boyfriend, in a terraced house." It's near the church: "It's such a crazy and random life. Fortunately I've got a church I can practise in. I try to get in there in the morning, before looking at e-mails has clouded my brain completely."

I ask her if she feels lucky to have the EMI contract. "They know there's a market for this music if it's put across the right way," she says. "Maybe they thought, 'oh, she's female, we can put her on the cover'. But I don't care about that. People have got to be engaged by it once they start listening. I just want to show people what the trumpet can do."

8 July, Barbican Hall, Silk Street, London EC2 (020-7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk)

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