Q&A with Alison Balsom and Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet Mark Hughes

Q&A with Alison Balsom and Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet Mark Hughes

Trumpet virtuoso and furniture restorer Alison Balsom
Alison Balsom, trumpet virtuoso and furniture restorer

Alison Balsom, British trumpeter extraordinaire and recipient of the 2013 Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” title, will be gracing the Jones Hall stage on September 13 for the 2014-2015 Season Opening Night Concert. Recently, the Houston Symphony’s own principal trumpet Mark Hughes got to ask her some questions about her career and musical experiences, one trumpet player to another.

Mark Hughes: You have a beautiful singing approach to your playing. Was this something that came naturally to you or would you say you had to develop that style?

Alison Balsom: I think all instrumentalists refer to the singing voice to understand phrasing and making a line, whether consciously or not. After all we are just communicating. When I don’t understand a musical idea, I sing it for a while and it then makes sense.

MH: Growing up in the UK, did you spend much time playing cornet in a brass band? If so, how did this influence you?

AB: I did. I started the cornet and the trumpet at exactly the same time and therefore had the benefit of playing the violin role in the orchestra, i.e. you play all the time, the best melodies and learn to listen to those around you and meld into that sound. It’s a perfect training for a brass player.

Mark Hughes, Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet
Mark Hughes, Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet

MH: Who have been your most influential teachers and mentors?

AB: My most influential teacher was definitely John Miller, who payed in the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Wallace Collection. I had him teach me from ages 13- 20, and he taught me everything there is to know about sound production and the zen art of making this physically demanding instrument feel almost yogic.

MH: Other than hard work, what would you suggest to young aspiring trumpeters wanting to have a careers as soloists?

AB: Go to concerts and listen listen listen to the best music and musicians you can find. I would name Martha Argerich, Claudio Abbado, Maxim Vengerov, Fabio Biondi, Murray Perahia, Pekka Kuusisto, Andras Schiff, John Elliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, and Maria João Pires, just off the top of my head, whose musicianship and charisma have totally inspired me throughout my solo life.

MH: I’m a huge fan of the recording you did on natural trumpet, in fact, it’s the best natural trumpet playing I’ve ever heard! Your artistry, command and phrasing is unmatched. How long have you been playing a natural instrument and what kind of instrument do you use?

AB: I have been playing since I was in the 3rd year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – so since I was 21. I just fell in love with this instrument as soon as I started learning it, as it makes total sense of the whole Baroque era in terms of phrasing, colour and the difference in keys and certain notes of the scale, which you lose on a modern instrument such as the piccolo. I play various different makes but my favourite is by Egger of Switzerland.

MH: How much time are you away from home each year? Does your son travel with you?

AB: Not so much actually. I am so fortunate that I can pick and choose when I go away now, and although I used to orbit the Globe constantly, now I just do the concerts that are irristable and that fit with my schedule.

MH: I know you do not always perform with orchestras and that sometimes you perform full recitals. With that kind of endurance demand, you must have to practice a fair amount. When traveling, where do you practice? Do you find it difficult to practice in hotels? Do you use mutes of any kind?

AB: I try not to use mutes as of course the majority of that practice is for stamina rather than learning technical things, and so the best sound production technique is paramount. I do just practice in hotel rooms most of the time and miraculously I’ve never had a complaint – which is not a boast, as it can’t be because it sounds good, as I’m usually playing endless arpeggios and scales! Maybe hotels always put me at the end of the corridor?

Balsom 3 photo cr - Maker
Alison Balsom

MH: What do you like to do in your spare time? Hobbies?

AB: I’m obsessed with interior design and furniture restoration. If I’m not practising or doing a concert or recording, you’ll find me in the shed… not ‘wood shedding’ as the great Wynton Marsalis calls practicing, but literally ‘wood shedding!’ – with a piece of sand paper!


Don’t miss Opening Night with the Houston Symphony!

Opening Night with Andrés
September 13 at 7:30 PM
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Alison Balsom, trumpet

Buy tickets now!

Saluting the official start of his Inaugural Season, Andrés leads the Opening Night concert with Alison Balsom, British trumpeter extraordinaire and recipient of the 2013 Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” title. The concert opens with Mozart’s delightful Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Balsom performs Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, and the night concludes with Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky’s ten-movement suite, in a brilliant orchestration by Maurice Ravel.

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