Alison Balsom – classical beauty at the Forum

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BY PETER HUMMERS | The Outer Banks Forum for the Lively Arts was treated to a display of musical virtuosity Saturday by British trumpeter Alison Balsom and her top-notch ensemble.

Backed by a trio of musicians whose impressive resumes were proven onstage, she transported the audience, and herself, to the place where lived such composers as Vivaldi (who was an inspiration to the great Johann Sebastian Bach) and Astor Piazzolla (the twentieth-century master of the tango).

Onto a stage graced only by the Forum’s Yamaha grand piano, a harpsichord and a chair, strode Balsom, violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, pianist Benjamin Hochman and Hochman’s unbilled page-turner. There were no microphones or speaker monitors onstage; on the floor in front of the stage, a single microphone stand pointed two mics up past the feet of the performers.

Without further ado, save the half-dozen notes it took to tune the instruments, they began the allegro movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 9 in D major, as transcribed by Vivaldi acolyte Johann Sebastian Bach. The precise interplay of cello and harpsichord was a thing of beauty. Balsom played a flourish and began trading phrases with the violin and continuo. Her articulation on some fast and complicated passages was perfect as far as this reviewer could hear; her notes were as crisp as the harpsichord’s.

After this movement the audience spontaneously took one side in the “applause between movements” debate: they exploded, then cut it short to let the musicians continue. In the twentieth century the fashion arose of silence from the audience between movements of a piece; perhaps due to the audience wanting to show off their musical erudition. In earlier times the musicians were used to applause between – and sometimes during – movements. Mozart once wrote to his father: “I began [my allegro] with two violins only, piano for the first eight bars – followed instantly by a forté; the audience, as I expected, said ‘hush’ at the soft beginning, and when they heard the forté, began at once to clap their hands. I was so happy.”

As the applause died down the musicians onstage – apparently happy – looked to Mills for the cue to begin the larghetto. The music this evening was uncommonly good; through the precision and discipline of the musicians pure feeling shone. At times, while she waited for her part, Balsom stood, staring at the ceiling above the balcony or with eyes closed, clearly transported herself, by the music. (She alone played through the evening without reading her parts.)

After the allegro, Balsom concisely said a few words about the concerto (it had been written for violin) and introduced the next concerto, an explicit trumpet piece, Johann Baptist Neruda’s Concerto in E flat for Trumpet and Strings. Neruda, an eighteenth-century Bohemian, is less well-known than many of his peers, except for the E-flat trumpet concerto, a brilliant, powerful piece that hit the ground running. Hochman moved over to the piano and Balsom’s kinetic trumpet carried the music along smartly.

After another Neruda piece and Georg Fridiric Handel’s Suite in D major came the intermission. The harpsichord was moved offstage to herald the twentieth century, represented in the second half of the evening by the music of Goedicke, Enescu, de Falla and Piazzolla.

The range of Balsom and her ensemble was demonstrated by the sleek readings of the modern material, notably Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Folk Songs and Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion and Libertango, which were cinematic and streamlined. Neruda’s Trumpet Sonata in D major fit in well with the sophisticated cosmopolitan music of the second set, even though he died in 1780; he has a tireless champion in Balsom.

George Enescu’s Legende was a stately, wide-ranging duet for piano and trumpet, in which both shone equally.

The evening’s encore, beseeched by the standing house, was a special treat – a gorgeous reading of George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which drew sighs from the audience and stayed with them all the way home.

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