Trumpeter Balsom shines brightly in gleaming Baroque program at UC

Sat Apr 20, 2013 at 4:37 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Alison Balsom performed Friday night with the Scottish Ensemble in the University of Chicago Presents series.

After a week that began with the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon and by early Friday night saw the city of Boston under a lockdown, some balm for the soul was sorely needed. For the lucky sold-out audience at University of Chicago’s Logan Center, the Scottish Ensemble with English trumpeter Alison Balsom as soloist was more than happy to oblige. Their all-Baroque program, performed with infectious zest and formidable technical skill, was a powerful reminder of human goodness.

Friday’s concert offered a lively collection of pieces by Geminiani, Albinoni, Handel, Vivaldi and Purcell. Now in its fourth decade and guided by violinist Jonathan Morton who also serves as artistic director, the group performs without a conductor. But the 16-member ensemble of strings and harpsichord sounded both tight and flexible. Taking the stage briskly, with most musicians standing throughout the concert, the Scottish Ensemble was a set of performers literally and figuratively on their toes.

The program alternated between works for ensemble alone and those featuring trumpet, including an oboe concerto by Albinoni and a Vivaldi violin concerto that Balsom transcribed for piccolo B-Flat trumpet. Opening the concert without Balsom, the ensemble performed Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D Minor, La Folia, a potent set of variations on the ages-old folk tune. The ensemble’s strings sounded tensile and lean, but the tone never turned sharp or grating. As two violins and a cello traded phrases from the tune, alternating between furiously fast fiddling and noble melancholy, the ensemble offered sensitive support.

The group also shone in Purcell’s Fantasia on One Note. Periodically, overlapping layers of dancing melodies faded away, leaving only a single viola clinging to one, unchanging note. The viola’s hushed, textured sound hung in the air like a smoky phantom.

A high-profile star on the international stage, Balsom is a simply astonishing trumpet player. She and the ensemble don’t limit themselves to Baroque repertoire; they work often with contemporary composers. But she sailed through wickedly complex ornaments and melodies Friday night with complete ease. Her tone is even and round, with none of the edge that can turn a trumpet flourish into a blaring race. Using a valveless baroque trumpet in the Overture to Handel’s Atalanta and sections from Purcell’s King Arthur, her tone was burnished and her wide-leaping pitches impossibly accurate. In two of the concert’s most familiar pieces—Handel’s Suite for Trumpet and Strings and the evening’s encore, Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark March—Balsom and her colleagues sounded exuberant and confident.

Speaking of confidence, Balsom not only plays an awe-inspiring trumpet. She also upends the classical music world’s very strict unwritten rules for female soloists in recital. With very few exceptions, only opera divas are allowed to flaunt their good looks on stage. But Balsom–tall and sleek, a beautiful blonde in her mid-30s with a dazzling smile–gleefully ignores all those rules. She swept onstage Friday night in stiletto heels, first wearing a long, lime-green diaphanous gown. After intermission she arrived in a white halter evening gown with a draped skirt. Wielding her long baroque trumpet, she was the very image of a Christmas angel.

A world-class beauty playing world-class trumpet? Truly balm for the soul.

Posted in Performances

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