“I play who I am,” says Alison Balsom. “With the trumpet, you have to wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s risky, but it’s thrilling.” She’s the most garlanded trumpet player of her generation, winner of the 2013 Gramophone Artist of the Year award, three times winner at the Classic Brits. She’s performed as soloist with the world’s greatest conductors and orchestras, but still recalls the “life-changing” moment when she was announced brass category winner in the 1998 BBC Young Musician competition.
“Winning the brass final was like a dream. Getting to the concerto final was a baptism of fire. It was the first time I’d ever played a solo with an orchestra and there just aren’t that many brass solo players in the world. Undoubtedly, it was that experience that gave me the strength to carry on and make solo trumpet my career.”
Returning to BBC Young Musician as co-presenter (with guitarist Milos Karadaglic) of the category finals and this week’s semi-final is, says Balsom, “the most fantastic privilege”.
“Presenting and being at production meetings has been so lovely – just seeing the enormous respect the crew has for the young musicians, the care that is taken over how best to film them without disturbing their thought process. Often, with TV talent shows, performers are basically hamsters on the wheel. But with Young Musician it’s not ‘You are our hamster.’ It’s ‘You are an artist and we’re trying to capture that.’ With this competition it’s a given that everyone has talent and it’s more about imagining where that talent is going to go in the future, rather than just exploiting it for ratings. And to see a child use their own self-discipline to dedicate themselves to something they want to do that much, it’s quite life-affirming, isn’t it?”
Discipline is one thing, but the stereotype of the hothoused prodigy, closeted away from the usual distractions of child- hood is, in Balsom’s experience, unhelpful. “Personally, I don’t think you should make everything else take a back seat to music. At various points in your life as a performer you’ll have to do that, but I think the more rounded you are as a person, the more interesting you are as a musician. Anything you experience, you can put into your music-making. And it will make you better, because music is essentially self-expression.”
The daughter of a builder and a social worker, Balsom, 35, grew up in Royston, Hertfordshire, where she attended state schools and played in the town band. The provision of free music lessons in schools – now pruned by the Department of Education – is, for Balsom, “a basic right” and she is blistering in her attack on Michael Gove’s utilitarian adjustments to the curriculum. “These cutbacks make me so furious. How short-sighted is it not to see how useful music is? We know the countless benefits of what music can do to your brain – you learn to listen, to take in information, to work with other people. “
Just look at the BBC Young Musicians – they’re not all going to become concerto soloists, but whatever they do in life, they’re going to do it brilliantly because of this formative experience of making music.
“Music education is about so much more than turning out professional musicians, but I have to say that if I’d been born a few years later, there’s no way I would be having this career. I didn’t go to a specialist school. At my little primary school we all got the chance to play an instrument. I remember seeing the trumpet for the first time and thinking, ‘Ooh, it’s so cool. It’s beautiful!’ I had a great teacher at school and I went to Junior Guildhall [the London Saturday school for talented young musicians] but I didn’t have a specialist trumpet teacher until I was 14. I know that if, as a child, I’d been dependent on the Government funding that’s around now, I simply wouldn’t exist as a professional player.”
While the media has made much of Balsom’s lonely eminence as a female star in the macho world of brass, the whole “gender thing” is clearly beginning to bore her. “Not so long ago, it used to be all men – the whole orchestra,” she points out. “But the world changes. It’s just not cool now to be like, ‘This is a men’s club.’ No one intelligent thinks that’s the way to go.”
The fact that she looks like a Renaissance angel (if angels wore Armani, and who’s to say they shouldn’t?) is equally incidental. “To be honest, I will buy clothes for the stage that I don’t even feel I look nice in, but that I feel are appropriate. If you’re wearing a great gown, it’s your armour. But if that’s all you’ve got – even if you look amazing – your career won’t last ten minutes. The obsession with gender and appearance is just lazy journalism. I pay my mortgage by playing concertos with orchestras. The ticket holders aren’t going because they read that kind of headline.”
With around 90 international engagements a year, a four-year old son (Balsom split from Charlie’s father, ENO conductor Edward Gardner in 2011), and a new album and tour to promote, a clear, overall vision is paramount. “My single goal is to go out and play music that I love. The lack of solo repertoire for brass is a challenge, but the trumpet is so versatile; if you use your imagination, you can go in almost any direction.
“My new album is loosely based on a theme of Paris, with classical pieces by Ravel, Satie and Messiaen, but also more mainstream things like La Vie en Rose and Autumn Leaves. As a young musician, when asked to go down the crossover route, I said no. But I’ve been making classical records for 12 years now, I’ve gone down the hard route. Now I can enjoy it and do some sexy songs. Just at the point where everyone is going, ‘Nooo! Don’t go sexy on us, you’re too old!’ ”
This seems unlikely. Nor is a deviation from the “hard route” necessarily easy. Pushing boundaries is what Balsom does best. “I’ll never master the trumpet,” she says, “but I’ll spend the rest of my life trying.”