Alison Balsom

ALISON BALSOM: “the more depressing the world becomes, the more people will look for an experience which is slightly more profound than the immediate satisfaction of ‘fast-food’ entertainment…and that’s where classical music comes in.”

alison balsom haydn trumpet concerto interview Kings College Chapel Stephen Cleobury

The words ‘trumpet soloist’ and ‘attractive female’ are rarely combined.

It might be surprising that the first two words are as unusual as the combination. Alison Balsom has been making a successful case for the trumpet as a solo instrument for years. She is one of the finest instrumentalists in the world, has several albums on EMI, and has performed with the world’s best orchestras. Yet her good looks have led to comparisons with trashy cross-over musicians like Katherine Jenkins.

We met in Carluccio’s on a cold, clear morning. Given her red carpet appearances and celebrity in the classical music world, I was not surprised when her agent ‘phoned me just before she was due, explaining she was ‘stuck in traffic’ and would be late. But when she arrived, she was unexpectedly out of breath, and genuinely apologetic.

I began by asking Alison about her upcoming concert in King’s Chapel with the Philharmonia Orchestra, where she will be performing Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. Alison’s approach to the trumpet contradicts the ‘louder is better’ attitude of many brass players: “I can play very powerfully, as much as the next boy, but there is more to it than that.” For an instrument with a “boisterous”, “extrovert” stereotype (her words, not mine), it’s interesting that she describes the Haydn Concerto as “delicate”, “translucent” and “like a piece of chamber music.”

Whilst it is a work with which she has a long history, and which is “technically, pretty straightforward”, she has worked hard to form her own interpretation of it. Through understanding how other musicians approach Classical-period music, she has found that “there is much more to this piece than just the way the trumpet plays it.”

Alison’s glamorous image is her most obvious singularity amongst brass players. Other than diverting distractable interviewers, one unfortunate side-effect is a tendency for the press to lump her together with other classical ‘babes’ such as Katherine Jenkins. To some extent, she takes this as a compliment: “I don’t mind that! If they’re lumping us together because they think I’m glamorous, and the others are glamorous, that’s cool. If they’ve listened to the music then that’s different.”

Image simply helps her “not alienate [her] audience.” As she points out, “Simon Rattle has his makeup done before he does his cover shoots for his albums, and no one’s buying his albums because of how he looks!” Success in classical music is based primarily on ability, not appearance: “no soloist is ever going to be taken seriously if they’re not playing to the top level. If there’s a guy who’s better, they’ll get the job.” For her, it’s much more important “that you have charisma and a big aura on stage, which is a totally different thing.” She sees her gender as irrelevant: “all my trumpet teachers have been male, and it never occurred to me that they were men and I was a girl when I started, aged 7. It was just, like, ‘I want to be good at the trumpet’, not ‘I want to be good – for a girl’.”

Aside from being paid for doing what you love, the life of a classical soloist isn’t easy. “I do think you have to be pretty tough to be a soloist; [even during] your worst gig, when you’re feeling horrendous and you’ve got the ‘flu and jet-lag and you’ve lost your suitcase, and other stuff’s going wrong – you still have to be able to go on stage and make the audience feel that they’re hearing something really special.”

So it makes sense that she is settling down – she’s dating Edward Gardner (sorry, guys…). They had her first child, a baby boy, about a year ago. Far from limiting what she can do, she says that “the fact that I’m now being more selective about what I do suits me perfectly. If I didn’t feel like that, it would be frustrating, because once you have a child you’re back in the 1950s in terms of female-male equality. The mother needs to be around, it’s as simple as that.”

In future, Alison will continue to release her classical CDs, and may also consider collaborating with non-classical artists – although she adds, “I’m not going to do’s not my kind of music.” Whilst she is deeply concerned about the cuts to the arts and education, she remains optimistic. “I like to think … that the more depressing the world becomes with various things that are happening, the more people will look for an experience which is slightly more profound than the immediate satisfaction of ‘fast-food’ entertainment. Eventually, whether it’s when you reach a certain age or when something happens in your life, you think ‘I need more depth than this,’ and that’s where classical music comes in.”

Alison Balsom will perform with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Stephen Cleobury in King’s College Chapel, at 7.30 on Friday 25th February. The concert will also feature the CUMS Chorus, King’s College Choir and pieces by Mozart and Verdi.