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In conversation: Gabriel’s Alison Balsom and Samuel Adamson

Published 22 July 2013

As concepts go, it’s unusual; build a production around a musical instrument – the natural trumpet in the case of Gabriel – and the music composed for it. It would take some brass to attempt such a unique idea, yet that is exactly what Shakespeare’s Globe has done with its latest commission.

Okay, maybe it’s not such a gamble. Alison Balsom, whose lust for presenting Purcell’s baroque canon kicked off talks, is an award-winning trumpet soloist, while playwright Samuel Adamson’s work is regularly seen across London’s stages, including the National Theatre, where his collaboration with Tori Amos, The Light Princess, will open this autumn.

Still, the production is rarer than an article about a trumpet that doesn’t include a pun, so we chatted to the creative duo and gave them the opportunity to blow their own horns about it.

How did the production come about?

Balsom: It was my idea. I wanted to record the trumpet music of Purcell and Handel because it’s such a golden age for the instrument. I thought, this music is so theatrical, even in the concert hall, so it seemed a natural step to think where would be a good place to do a live show. The Globe was my idea of the perfect venue. Being made of wood it’s perfect for the human voice, and the trumpet is so similar to the human voice in many ways, yet it has this extra power that it can unleash occasionally, so it’s a wonderful acoustic for the trumpet.

I approached Dominic Dromgoole. He listened to my ideas then really took the leap of faith and said “Let’s make it into a proper show, I’ll give you a company of actors and a wonderful playwright.”

What were your first thoughts when Dominic came to you with the idea, Sam?

Adamson: I knew that Alison would be on stage. I had an idea that there would be an orchestra on stage, and I knew she wanted to play [the music of] Purcell and Handel at the Globe. What that meant for me was I had to go away having had lots of discussions with Alison and find a series of plays. It’s ended up being a number of short stories specifically about the trumpet between 1690 and 1695, or about Restoration life, which are then hopefully intensified and beautified by the music. The country is at war, so the trumpet was a very symbolic instrument, a war-like signalling instrument. But the interesting thing about Purcell at the time, which Alison has discovered, is that he was writing really broad, colourful pieces that reinvented the way the trumpet could be used.

The operas that Purcell wrote use music and text and singing and dance. In some ways that’s what Gabriel does. The plays are sometimes self-contained, sometimes there’s orchestral music in the middle of them, sometimes there’s a song, sometimes they’re bookended by music.

How have you worked together?

Balsom: When I was thinking about this as a concept, I was putting together an album that I recorded with The English Concert and the amazing Baroque music specialist Trevor Pinnock. We were working intensively on the music and what repertoire would really work for the trumpet, whether it was written originally for the trumpet or could be adapted. When Sam and I first met I knew it was a case of informing Sam of where I had got to with the exploration of the music, then just handing it over and trusting him.

A lot of people have said it’s brave to have embarked on this, but when you look at the ingredients; the things Sam has done in the past I really admire, Purcell’s music is spectacular, the Globe is so renowned for so many things, the quality of actors is extraordinary. The raw ingredients are all so good that it fills you with confidence right from the outset.

Did you take inspiration specifically from the music, Sam?

Adamson: Absolutely. I started with Alison’s album. I did a lot of listening actually. I found on the whole the stories were beginning to centre themselves around that period, 1690 to 1695. It was interesting to discover that a lot of Purcell’s music used the trumpet in quite a spectacular and often deeply dramatic way.

Music is the starting point for all of these stories, so even if a play isn’t specifically about musicians and music, the human experience it explores is voiced by the music that we’ve chosen and that Alison provided as part of the context.

Balsom: There are moments in the play, significant parts of the play, that at first glance are nothing to do with the music, yet it feels completely right and connected in ways that musicians don’t ever really think about. As a musician, there’s a certain set of rules of what we do in performance, this is really taking down those barriers.

How different is it to commit to performing in one place for a period of time this summer, Alison?

Balsom: It’s amazing. My commute to work is always to Heathrow Airport and then usually 12 hours on a plane. I live in Southwark and we’re in Southwark right now. And to do something collaborative… As a soloist you’re always working on your own, so to be part of the team is a joyful experience, especially when everyone on the team is so good at what they do.

Do you have any worries about performing in a roofless venue during a British summer?

Balsom: I’ve heard from the musicians that play at the Globe regularly that when it chucks it down with rain and the groundlings wear rain macs it creates an amazing and slightly more resonant acoustic. The music bounces off hard macs instead of people’s soft clothes. Musicians are obsessed with acoustics. It’s all they care about. They don’t care about being cold or wet.

Adamson: The thing about Alison which is brilliant is that she’s up for anything. That’s why I was attracted to the project. She’s always trying to find new contexts for her music, so that music isn’t just stuck in a concert hall. That feels true to the way this music was composed, but what that means is that Alison is on stage in lots of different guises. She’s not just there as a solo trumpet, she becomes part of the texture of the storytelling and so do the musicians.

Is this your acting debut, then?

Balsom: I don’t know about that. I’m not speaking, but at the same time I’m standing on the stage with, in my opinion, some of the world’s best actors. I’m very happy to be standing on stage with them, but I think my speaking will be through my trumpet playing.

Are you concerned about potential audiences having preconceived ideas about classical music?

Balsom: I actually have a few friends who said they’d never been to a classical concert before, but when I told them a few of the details about this particular performance, they went out and immediately bought tickets. As well as being high art, it’s still going to be really entertaining. I think it will be very seductive in that way.

One thing i should say is people like classical music so much more than they think they do. People will cry at the required moment in a film and it’s because the music being played is really moving and it happens to be classical. People don’t need to know the label and the title, they just need to be moved.

People are most scared of the etiquette of a concert hall, the not clapping in between movements and that stuff, that’s nothing to do with this project.

The Globe website says the show contains saucy humour and rude bits, can you tell us any more?

Balsom: You’ve got to, you’ve got the trumpet. There are so many double entendres you can come up with about the trumpet, and as a brass player I’ve heard every single one of them. It would be the elephant in the room if we didn’t enjoy that at the Globe.

Adamson: It’s a play about London in all its colour and variety and vulgarity and tragedy and sadness and joy at that time. We’ve got characters from all walks of life. There’s definitely a bit of tavern humour and some of that was inspired by Purcell. Not only did he write glorious pieces of orchestral music, wonderful arias and semi operas, but he wrote really racy ballads for the ale house and we’ve got a few of those that will work in the context of the Globe.

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