If you have ever observed the brass section of a typical North American symphony orchestra, you know that the trumpet, trombone and tuba enclave is decidely male-dominated. My own professional experience with trumpet players has reinforced their gentlemanly macho profile.
English trumpet virtuoso Alison Balsom, who performed with the Scottish Ensemble Saturday (April 6) at Sherwood Auditorium, will cause many to re-examine this stereotype. As soloist in a pair of Baroque concertos and Scottish composer James MacMillan’s “Seraph” for trumpet and strings, Balsom demonstrated a fluent, supple technique and the panache we expect from today’s heirs of the fabled medieval trumpet guilds.
Commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble in 2011, “Seraph” is an appealing, neo-classical trumpet concerto that provides the soloist with ample opportunity to indulge alternately in flashy fanfares and lyrical flights. She engaged in particularly winning duets with Scottish Ensemble concertmaster and Artistic Director Jonathan Morton, notably in the slow middle movement where his delicate violin line hovered above her melancholy trumpet reverie. At other times in “Seraph,” their duos called to mind the austere beauty of Aaron Copland’s 1948 “Quiet City,” a sadly overlooked gem for trumpet, English Horn and strings that appears destined to forever langish in the shadow of his bumptious “Appalachian Spring.”
MacMillan’s 18-minute piece—this performance was its U.S. premiere—may not have broken any new ground, but I found it elegantly constructed and proportioned. Its harmonic idiom brought to mind the concertos of Henri Tomasi, an underappreciated French composer from the last century.
Balsom played her C Trumpet in “Seraph,” shaping a pure, agile sound that had sufficient muscle for the work’s angular perpetuum mobile themes, but appropriate luster for the chorale-like themes that opened and closed the work. For her Baroque repertory, Balsom chose a smaller, rotary-valve piccolo trumpet, which has an unusual timbre, at least to North American audiences, accustomed to trumpeters who play the piccolo trumpet with piston valves.
The rotary-valve instrument is not as brilliant, but handles ornamentation—a hallmark of Baroque style—more elegantly than[php snippet=1] the instruments North American trumpeters favor. Both of Balsom’s concertos were transcriptions, but I thought the virtuosity of Vivaldi’s D Major Violin Concerto, RV 230 (her own transcription), was more suited to the trumpet that Tomaso Albinoni’s more straightforward and emotionally contained Oboe Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 7, No. 3. Balsom’s encore was a transcription of a solo organ piece by the Swedish composer Oscar Lindberg, “Fantasy on a Finnish Folksong.”
This was my first hearing of the Scottish Ensemble, and from the outset I admired their verve in the 18th-century repertory, as
well as their cohesion playing without conductor. Taking their cues from their concertmaster, they opened with a brash account of Francesco Geminani’s Concerto Grosso on “La Folia.” Their vigorous downbows and brutal short phrasing seemed to reflect the gritty, street-smart culture of Glasgow, where the Scottish Ensemble is based.
But theirs is a string sound with little sonic allure, and although they attempted to meet the mellifluous Romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings halfway, it was a tenuous compromise.
Morton gave a commendable account of Mendelssohn’s rarely played early Violin Concerto in D Minor, a substantial achievement for a 13-year-old composer. But not an emotionally rewarding one, I fear. Still, it was appealing to hear Morton sport his technique in a major solo role.