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With a burgeoning career and a new record contract, trumpeter Alison Balsom shows she’s more than just one of the boys.
The world of brass is traditionally seen as a male preserve – beer-soaked and raucous, so the hoary old stereotype goes. Alison Balsom certainly doesn’t live down to this reputation though, and is one of the few female trumpet soloists in a man’s world. She reached the concerto final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1998 and won a prize for Most Beautiful Soun’ at the Maurice André International Trumpet Competition in Paris in 2000. And her debut recording resulted in signing a three-album deal with EMI.
Loud and shiny
“The trumpet’s a very exciting instrument for a kid,” says Alison. “It’s loud and it’s shiny, and you can bash it on things and it seems to survive!”
So while other young girls in the Home Counties were learning to scrape bow across gut, Alison was practising on a trumpet belonging to her uncle.
“The trumpet is more satisfying early on. It’s more rewarding than, say, the violin, because on the trumpet you can get a fairly good sound within a couple of weeks and start playing in bands, whereas with a violin it can take a while before you can make a decent sound.”
She played in both the National Youth Orchestra and the pan-European Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. Shortly before she graduated from the Guildhall she became the first brass player to be taken on by the Young Concert Artists’ Trust (“which was very lucky,” she says) – and now she’s joined the BBC’s New Generation Artists scheme, resulting in concerts with orchestras throughout the country.
Feminine, expressive and beautiful
Is it difficult for a woman to forge a career as a brass soloist?
“It still surprises people to see a girl playing the trumpet. I suppose it’s the novelty value, but I have to try and persuade people that the trumpet isn’t just an instrument that plays loudly at the back of the orchestra, and that it can be sensitive; all the things a male player might not be able to say, such as ‘my instrument’s feminine, expressive and beautiful’
“But they’re things the trumpet can be. It’s changed a lot, as it should, because it’s no longer about colliery bands, and the orchestras are no longer just full of men. I don’t feel self-conscious being a female trumpeter; I’ve just got used to it. The boys in the groups in which I played were my friends – they looked after me and I gave them advice on their love-lives, so it all worked out very well!”
The future sees an array of concerts: there’s already been a broadcast recital from London’s Wigmore Hall, and in January Alison played James MacMillan’s Epiclesis (“an amazing piece, but physically exhausting”) as part of the Barbican’s annual composer weekend.
She recorded the first disc under her new EMI contract – based around music by Bach – and founded a music festival in Studland, Dorset. But there’s always the problem of the trumpet’s slim repertoire though… isn’t there?
“I was asked to make a list of all the repertoire for the trumpet. Now, you may think that’s going to be small compared with the violin’s repertoire… well, it is, but it’s still vast!”