As the creative ferment of 21st-century performances of baroque music rises, the huge output of prolific composers like Handel, Vivaldi, and Purcell emerges as musical territory ripe for new exploration. Among the most intrepid of such adventurers is trumpeter Alison Balsom, who began her current United States tour on Friday with a concert that included works by each of the three composers mentioned above, plus a pair of pieces by Geminiani and Albinoni. The entire evening featured the Scottish Ensemble, a chamber string orchestra directed by Jonathan Morton, with Balsom joining as soloist for all but a couple of the selections.
The Scottish Ensemble established its bona fide as interpreters of the baroque style from the outset with a gripping account of the Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D Minor, “La Follia,” of Francesco Geminiani. This adaptation for string orchestra by Geminiani of a violin sonata by Corelli has become a favorite among 21st-century orchestras because it takes the excitement and flair of Corelli’s writing for violin and makes it into something that requires the entire string orchestra to converse in vivid counterpoint. When Balsom emerged for her first number, shining piccolo trumpet in hand, the audience was avid to hear her arrangement of Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in B-flat major, Op. 7, no. 3 (1712). Her performance was filled with brilliant, strikingly accurate phrasing, delicate interplay with the orchestra (especially violinist Jonathan Morton), and stunning flourishes of musical color. With Balsom offstage again, the ensemble worked its magic with a different concerto grosso, this one from the pen of Handel. And then Balsom was back, for her original arrangement for piccolo trumpet of Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 3, no. 9, RV 230 (1711). Again Balsom achieved an exquisite blend with the strings rather than pushing her own sound out front, and again her seemingly effortless virtuosity managed to manifest, especially in the exquisite legato passages of the second movement.
An ordinary classical superstar would be content with having successfully transformed two challenging compositions, each written for different instruments, into showcases for the trumpet, but Balsom combines a restless musical intellect with physical talent and stamina, and these qualities were all very much on display during the second half. She emerged after the interval to play a baroque trumpet for the remainder of the concert. Similar to the baroque trombone known as a sackbut, these valveless trumpets produce more voice-like tones than modern trumpets do and are often capable of reaching lower registers. They are also much harder to play in tune, with certain notes requiring the performer to compensate for the limitations of the instrument by executing quite demanding feats of embouchure. The music in this portion of the program was by Handel and Purcell, and the selections from Purcell’s King Arthur Suite (1691) were particularly thrilling, moving as they did from the poignantly lyrical “Fairest Isle” to the foot-stomping martial music of “Warlike Consort.”
In addition to her unusually multifaceted approach to the music, Balsom brings a winning stage presence to her performances, and the effect is festive to the point of celebration. Thus her choice of one of the world’s most popular wedding marches — Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark — nevertheless suited this more secular context. The overall impact of Balsom’s Santa Barbara debut was a triumph, and one expects that this tour will earn her an even larger following in this country.