All Reviews / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical / Reviews 2020/2021

Tuesdays in July at the Bowl (part 1 of 2): Alison Balsom and Musgrave trumpet concerto worth the wait

The July 20th concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl offered something for every kind of classical music fan.

If you’re an aficionado of brass, it would’ve made you very happy. If you like hearing new music, there were two gems to enjoy. If you prefer warhorses, you got one on the bill plus a bonus. If you like thematic programming, the two major works were musical embodiments of art gallery strolls. If you’re an advocate for more female representation in classical music, you had reason to celebrate given Tianyi Lu waas conducting with trumpeter Alison Balsom as the featured soloist playing a work by Thea Musgrave.

Whatever you wanted, the LA Phil had you covered.

The biggest splash was made by Ms. Balsom. She’s the quintessential musician’s musician: extremely talented and immensely tasteful, and fortunately for us, she likes visiting Los Angeles. This time, she brought along a new Trumpet Concerto, written by Ms. Musgrave for her and on co-commission by the LA Phil. Last summer’s US premiere was delayed when the entire Bowl season was cancelled, so it was good to have trumpeter, composer, and concerto rescheduled as soon as possible.

Ms. Musgrave drew inspiration from two sources: the first was a statement by Ms. Balsom that she loved to “sing” with her instrument; the second was an art exhibit by the painter Victoria Crowe featuring renditions of trees.

The unlikely combination resulted in a work that perfectly suited the trumpeter. Over the course of five movements plus a coda (each inspired by a different painting), Ms. Musgrave created soundscapes that were in turn lyrical, humorous, contemplative, and more. It is music that combines artistry and approachability.

Moreover, it gave Ms. Balsom ample opportunity to display the warm, opulent tone and technical skill for which she is renowned. LA Phil musicians got to jump in as well for some interactions with the soloist. Burt Hara (clarinet) and Robert deMaine (cello) shared some musical and comedic banter in middle movements, while James Wilt (trumpet) joined in a duet, starting offstage before walking on stage from the wings, serving as an echo-cum-mirror in the work’s climax and coda; all sounded beautiful.

The audience enjoyed the performance, giving it a hearty ovation. They gave even louder applause when a spotlight found the still spry 93-year old composer waving and blowing kisses to orchestra and soloist in her Garden Box seat.

The only thing that Ms. Musgrave’s concerto didn’t offer was the kind of splashy musical gymnastics extant in something like, say, the concerto of Johann Hummel, a popular piece that is generous in exuberance.

So it was particularly awesome that Ms. Balsom played the third movement of the Hummel concerto as an encore, showing off extraordinary virtuosity by playing with precision matched with subtlety. It’s tough to imagine it played better and interpreted more persuasively.

The same could not quite be said of Ms. Lu’s interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, played in Ravel’s popular and ubiquitous orchestration. The former Dudamel Conducting Fellow took a minimalist approach, choosing brisk tempos and lean textures throughout. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with any of it. Yet there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy or persuasive about it either.

Still, Pictures is hard to screw up. Mussorgsky and Ravel created music that gives conductor and orchestra lots of room to do their thing, whatever that may be, and still sound good. And the LA Phil certainly sounded quite good throughout, whether in ensemble or when individual musicians were highlighted. Principal Trumpet Tom Hooten was typically impressive, sounding noble in the opening “Promenade” and biting in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.” Jan Baker (alto saxophone) and Whitney Crockett (Principal Bassoon) were haunting in “Il vecchio castello.” Principal Trombone David Rejano was solid while doing double-duty on tenor tuba for “Bydlo.”

Opening the concert was the world premiere of Fanfare for a New Beginning by Ricardo Mollá. The composer fashioned an overtly joyous work for brass ensemble, and the LA Phil players made the best of it, sounding resplendent throughout.

Random other thoughts:

  • One word to describe the way the National Anthem was played:  perfunctory.
  • The Bowl’s amplification was relatively well behaved, with sound engineers usually able to increase clarity without making the orchestra balances sound too artificial. The only glaring exception was during the climax to the Mussorgsky when they allowed the brass and percussion to completely overwhelm the strings and woodwinds.
  • The video operators were less successful, often zooming in on percussionists just as they’d stop playing, panning wildly across the stage, or lingering too long on an instrument playing a supporting role while ignoring the one(s) playing the melody.
  • Images of Ms. Crowe’s six paintings were shown on the Bowl’s hi-def jumbo video screens during the trumpet concerto. The images which inspired Mussorgsky’s works were not.
  • The LA Phil has decided to forgo selling hardcopy programs this summer, encouraging patrons to use the digital programs available via the Hollywood Bowl app. This works fine when there is actual content to be found there, less so when program notes are not offered as was the case for the new work by Mr. Mollá. Perhaps the composer failed to provide any. His own website gives the briefest of descriptions: “This composition aims to be a source of hope after the global pandemic of COVID-19 that took place at the beginning of 2020.” For a little more information, check out the brief interview of Mr. Mollá by Craig L. Byrd on Cultural Attaché.
  • The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was the other group co-commissioning the Musgrave Trumpet concerto. Their current Music Director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, was herself a former Dudamel Conducting Fellow. She would be promoted to be the LA Phil’s Assistant Conductor and subsequently Associate Conductor before landing her current gig.

RELATED POSTS:

Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 20, 2021; Hollywood Bowl
Tianyi Lu, conductor
Alison Balsom, trumpet

Mollá: Fanfare for a New Beginning
Musgrave: Trumpet Concerto (world premiere, LA Phil co-commission)
Mussorgsky:  Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

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Photo credits:

  • Alison Balsom at the Hollywood Bowl: photo by Alan Chapman
  • Alison Balsom portrait: photo by Lizzie Patterson
  • Thea Musgrave: photo by Kate Mount, courtesy of the composer’s website
  • Alison Balsom with Tianyi Lu and the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl: courtesy of Ms. Balsom’s Twitter

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