Alison Balsom
Wins Female Artist of the Year at the Classical Brits

Alison Balsom

Even without the fake tan, bare long legs and Alice Temperley sequined minidress which accentuated her shapely figure, Alison Balsom would always stand out in a crowd.

The 30-year-old blonde possesses striking good looks – and she just also happens to be one of the world’s finest trumpet players.

It is an incredible achievement for a woman. For this is an instrument that has historically been mastered only by men in brass bands and orchestras, or jazz giants such as Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.
Blonde ambition: Classical Brits winner Alison Balsom, one of the finest trumpet players in the world
Slender and soft-spoken, Alison is as far removed from the traditional macho image of a brass player as it is possible to get.

It has been said that in her hands that tangle of metal tubing becomes as subtle and sonorous as a violin.

And last Thursday she cemented her position as a prodigious talent and rising star by winning the award for Female Artist of the Year at the Classical Brits ceremony in London.

The announcement caused almost as much of a sensation as did her deliberately provocative appearance on the red carpet beforehand.

The look had been skilfully crafted for maximum effect.

‘Classical music has a reputation for being incredibly harsh and staid,’ she says in her first interview.

‘I’m not trying to dumb down in any way and I wouldn’t wear a short dress on stage, but why not wear a cool rock-chick dress instead of a ball gown?

‘I even put on hair extensions and fake tan. You kind of have to when you’re in front of so many paparazzi.

'When your legs are bare to the tops of your thighs, you need all the help you can get to see you through. It’s kind of scary.’

To add extra glitz to her outfit, Alison, who was presented with her award at the Royal Albert Hall by ballerina Darcey Bussell, wore £1million of borrowed diamonds from celebrity jewellers Van Cleef and Arpels.

‘I’ve never seen anything sparkle so much,’ she admits. ‘I had a brilliant set of earrings and a ring as well. I was not going to be subtle about this. They made me feel amazing and I’ve been hinting to my boyfriend ever since.’

For the past two months she has been dating Edward Gardener, the 34-year-old musical director of the English National Opera.

‘It works well,’ she says. ‘It’s not competitive. It’s easy for us to understand each other’s weird world.’

She is, it would appear, naturally attracted to men who share her musical passion.

Two years ago she had a brief but much discussed romance with the Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov.

Given her confident stage presence and virtuoso performances, you would imagine Alison to be the product of some grand and privileged musical dynasty.

The reality could not be more different.

She comes from an ordinary background, which makes her success all the more extraordinary.

Her father Bill was a builder and her mother Zena placed children with foster families.

They were intelligent and cultured, but not the least bit musical, though their children were.

Alison’s brother Richard used to play the tuba and she, of course, opted for the trumpet.

It didn’t take long for the Balsoms to realise she had a special talent.

It was at primary school in Royston, Hertfordshire, that she first put a trumpet to her lips.

‘I had free tuition at school and then I started playing with the local brass band,’ she says.

‘My parents supported me and drove me everywhere to play. I still go back and play carols with the Royston band on Christmas Day. It’s wonderful.’

She found that tooting the trumpet and cornet came naturally to her.

‘With brass instruments, you either have the embouchure [ability to shape your lips and mouth correctly] for it or you don’t,’ she says.

‘I was quite precocious at seven and I loved the look of the trumpet and its sexy sound. I borrowed Dizzy Gillespie albums from the library and fell in love with the instrument, and have been in love with it ever since.’

When Alison was ten, her parents took her to hear the Swedish trumpet virtuoso Hakan Hardenberger play the Hummel concerto at the Barbican in London.

Watching Hakan, who later became one of Alison’s teachers, defined her life.

‘I remember that concert as if it was a week ago,’ she says. ‘I just thought, that’s what I want to do – stand up there and play trumpet solos. And even as I grew up and it became apparent that this wasn’t what most trumpet players did – they mostly sit at the back of orchestras – my ambition was still to be a soloist.’

She practised hard on a trumpet belonging to her uncle and was rewarded with a place in the National Youth Orchestra.

Alison also studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London, where the actor Orlando Bloom was one of her contemporaries.

‘We were in the same bars at the same time but weren’t really friends,’ she says.

But it was when she moved to France, to study at the Paris Conservatory, that her playing improved dramatically.

‘The French trumpet-playing way is much more solo-oriented, much less orchestra-focused, than in Britain,’ she says.

Her popularity as a rising international soloist does, however, have its less enjoyable side.

She has been travelling the world with orchestras since the age of 21.
‘The lifestyle can get lonely and surviving it makes you tough,’ she says.

‘It’s exhausting and sometimes demoralising. Being in hotels by yourself, waiting around airports – you feel your life has been taken over.

'But it’s also a real privilege. The highs are certainly better than the lows.

‘I feel like I’m trying to forge my way in so many directions.

'Classical music fans think the trumpet is an outrageous instrument, and because I’m female it makes them even more wary.

'Also, a lot of the public don’t understand classical music. But I’m lucky I’ve been able to get used to fame gradually and I’m determined not to let it change who I am.’

Alison might appear calm and collected on the concert platform, but she says that she always suffers from nerves.

For years she rarely slept the night before a big concert. These days, experience has taught her that nerves can bring out the best in a performer.

‘It means you are excited and you really care,’ she says.

The nerves helped her electrifying performance at the Brits, which was hosted by Myleene Klass and will be shown on ITV1 on Tuesday.

To go on stage, Alison changed out of her minidress into a slinky floor-length Armani robe.

As with all her professional dresses, an elasticated back panel had been stitched in to allow her to breathe deep enough to play.

She made the trumpet appear to sing with an irresistible exuberance and eloquence.

She was, however, stunned to beat off stiff competition from opera singers Anna Netrebko and Danielle de Niese to win the coveted Female Artist of the Year award.

‘When they called out my name I got a big shiver and my eyes pricked,’ Alison says.

During the interval she was congratulated by the Duchess of Cornwall, who is the patron of the London Chamber Orchestra.

‘I know her quite well – she’s been to so many of my concerts that she must have thought, “Not Alison Balsom again,”’ she says.

‘I don’t want to sound like I’m showing off, but she said I sound better every time she hears me. She’s incredibly cultured and knows her classical music.’

Alison was accompanied to the glamorous awards night by her proud parents and her brother Richard, a fireman.

Flushed with her success, she celebrated until 5am at a celebrity party hosted by her record label EMI, yet still managed to make it to the BBC to appear on breakfast television at 7am.

‘I was slightly delicate, as you can imagine,’ she says. ‘There had been dancing and a lot of mixing of drinks.

Alison Balsom
Winner: Alison with her Best Female award at the 2009 Classical Brit Awards

My friend was over from Brazil and we had quite a few caipirinha cocktails in her honour. People probably don’t think classical musicians party that much, but they’re the worst.’

Yet for all Alison’s celebrity socialising, she was in complete awe of the woman she met in the BBC green room the next morning – yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, who was promoting a sailing scheme.

‘Sailing is my other passion,’ explains Alison. ‘When I met Ellen I was so starstruck I didn’t know what to say. I felt like one of the fans from the night before.’

Alison has been sailing since the age of seven – the same age she started playing the trumpet.

It is one of three activities outside music that helps to keep her grounded and ‘is a brilliant way to switch off’. The others are skiing and surfing.

Such is her passion for sailing that this August she will compete in the 607-mile Rolex Fastnet Race – a six-day race that takes place every two years and starts off at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, rounds the Fastnet Rock off the south-west coast of Ireland and finishes at Plymouth.

It is not exactly a gentle glide – 15 sailors died in 1979 when a storm hit the race. In 2007, it was postponed due to a severe weather warning.

Alison will be one of a crew of ten on a 40ft yacht. They will have to make do with just two-and-a-half hours’ sleep at any one time in a hammock.

‘It’s not luxurious,’ she says.

‘I do get scared but you have to be scared of the sea. I probably am addicted to adrenaline, whether it’s on stage or on a boat.

'You can’t beat it. It makes you face your fears head-on. I’m a tomboy. I am the opposite of Katherine Jenkins and never usually wear skirts. I like boy hobbies.’

Last weekend she feared that her passion for sailing might even have prevented her from playing at the Classical Brits.

‘I was training and was hit in the back as I was changing sails,’ she says. ‘I thought I’d cracked a rib. I was panicking because I needed to practise.’

Full of enthusiasm for her future, Alison aims to share her music with a wider audience by branching out into the mainstream.

‘I would love to collaborate with Eminem,’ she says. ‘It wouldn’t be dumbing down. It would be two genres coming together and creating something very special.’

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