Earlier this spring, the La Jolla Music Society brought the English trumpeter Alison Balsom to solo with the chamber orchestra Scottish Ensemble, and on the strength of that performance the Society invited her to return for a solo recital at SummerFest. 2014.
With pianist Orion Weiss and organist Anthony Newman, she gave her SummerFest recital Wednesday (Aug. 6) at La Jolla’s St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. Her charming, stylishly eclectic program offered numerous transcriptions and a few choice pieces actually written for the trumpet, and her unfailingly supple, virtuoso technique reinforced the star quality of her first impression with the touring Scots.
In Weiss, Balsom found the ideal partner, a performer who shared her devotion to precise, clean articulation at the micro level, as well as an intuitive sense of drama and proportion in each work’s larger gestures. This approach found exquisite realization in Alexander Goedicke’s “Concert Etude,” a mid-20th-century showpiece that required a ceaseless whirlwind of intense iterations from each player, and in George Enescu’s 1906 “Legend for Trumpet and Piano,” a moody tone poem that alternated Impressionist harmonic washes with outbusts of Expressionist angst.[php snippet=1]
My left eyebrow arched when I saw that Balsom and Weiss had programmed a transcription of Manuel De Falla’s song cycle Seven Popular Spanish Songs, especially since Yo-Yo Ma had played such a wan transcription of this emotionally complex song cycle on his March 2014 recital at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. Balsom, however, made a much better case for transcription than did Ma. Not only did her trumpet’s range more closely parallel that of a soprano or mezzo-soprano, but Balsom’s palette of rich tonal colors brought out each’s song’s character in a more compelling way, from the elegiac mood of “Asturiana” to the brilliant Andalusian fervor of “Polo.”
Balsom gave a sterling, gracefully centered account of Toru Takemitsu’s “Paths” for solo trumpet, a sonic haiku that starkly and poignantly juxtaposed the tumpet’s piercing shrieks with its hushed, muted whimpers, using silence as an effective accompaniment. Her other unaccompanied offering, a “Sarabande” transcribed from one of the J. S. Bach Cello Suites (BWV 1008) was less compelling: even Balsom’s lightest color and most dulcet phrasing did not evoke the diaphanous grace of a sarabande.
Newman took his place at the console of the St. James’ Austin organ to furnish the orchestral portion of J. S. Bach’s Concerto in D Major for Trumpet and Organ, BWV 972, originally a Vivaldi Violin Concerto that Bach reworked for his own amusement. From Newman’s first crashing chords, it was clear that a sonic battle was about to take place, and Newman had the power of a large pipe organ to employ against Balsom’s elegant, German-made rotary valve piccolo trumpet.
It was no contest. Bach lost. Balsom lost. Newman played his customary fast and loud, using thick, garish, reedy registrations that perhaps a British Victorian civic organist might have employed in a solo recital in some pompous British town hall c. 1890. Newman’s program bio claims he is “without question, America’s finest Baroque interpreter.” This statement could be considered true by anyone who thinks the current year is 1952. Is there another concert organist in 2014 who presents Bach on the organ with such a mindless, inarticulate blur?
Balsom and Newman conspired on a trumpet and organ transcription of three solo organ pieces by Jehan Alain. Although the two quiet works allowed Balsom to sweeten Alain’s oblique melodies, I do not think the celebrated “Litanies” gained much by adding the solo trumpet.