Review: Austin Symphony Orchestra with Alison Balsom

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(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance critic Luke Quinton.)

On a cool Friday night, the Austin Symphony rang in its first concert of the new year, in lieu of bells, with a trumpet. AlisonBalsom2

The instrument in question belonged to British trumpeter Alison Balsom, “Gramophone” magazine’s 2013 artist of the year.

Solo piano and violin so dominate this arena these days, that you’d think watching a soloist take the stage near the podium with a trumpet in hand is almost the orchestral equivalent of a linebacker filling it at quarterback.

It’s not, of course. Balsom, glittering on stage in a long champagne dress, cast a warm presence on stage, and proceeded with generous playing that showed the full landscape of what a master of the instrument can accomplish.

Playing Hummel’s “Trumpet Concerto in E Major,” Balsom took all the trumpet’s edges and rendered them round and warm. Her tone held through an array of dynamics, even gentle sections sounded beautiful. Conductor Peter Bay and the ASO were sensitive partners — even a touch too sensitive, falling too quietly into the background at times.

The audience heard an encore with full orchestra, a Piazzolla work that smartly cleansed the palate and shifted the mood to a swaying work by the tango master. Balsom dazzled once again.

This vibrant performance was preceeded a little sleepily out the gate, with Hadyn’s “Symphony No. 102 in E flat Major” which plodded along in uncertainty until its vigorous finale.

After intermission Bay and the ASO played Ravel’s “Pavane Pour un Enfant Defunte” and kept the mystery of that work afresh. Avoiding the cliches and finding a silvern tone that felt appropriately sombre and serious.

A work by Manuel de Falla rounded things out. His “El Amor Brujo” (The Bewitched Love) began innocently, then reveled in bouncing from pretty bits of romantic longing to something much more strange. Liz Cass’s mezzo soprano was buried below the orchestra, but there were some nice moments in this interesting, textured piece.


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