Music of the Baroque–Alison Balsom’s Trumpet Triumph and a Mozart Birthday Party

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
January 30, 2020

Perhaps it was my childhood experience making awful squawking sounds on a clarinet, but it just feels like a brass or woodwind solo is a particularly hazardous high-wire act. Maybe a violinist or pianist playing at high velocity could mask a missed note or a slightly off-key fingering. But one slip of the lip or short breath can sour the audience on a brass or reed soloist.

That is one reason, perhaps, why Alison Balsom’s flawless virtuoso turn as guest artist for Music of the Baroque’s Harris Theater concert January 23 was so captivating. Performing Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat-major, Hob. Vlle.:1, this international star from England made every note ring true. And after a roof-raising standing ovation, she returned to the stage with a piccolo trumpet—smaller than the standard instrument, with keys on the side rather than on top—and breezed through a trumpet solo interpolation of Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D-major.

Along with her extraordinary talent, Balsom is a passionate advocate for music education. That put her in the right place, as this is also a passion for Jane Glover, Music of the Baroque’s conductor and artistic director, and audiences seldom leave an M.O.B. concert without learning something about classical music.

The concert program included two of the most familiar compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his Symphony No. 36 in C-major, K. 425, also known as the Linz symphony, and Symphony No. 38 in D-major, K. 504, aka the Prague symphony. Glover explained at the beginning of the concert that the concert was Music of the Baroque’s annual celebration of Mozart’s January 27 birthday, which this year was his 264th. The program’s balance between Mozart and Haydn was preserved with the performance of the latter’s Symphony No. 30 in C-major, Hob. I:30. Glover noted that, despite these two composers’ wildly differing personalities, Mozart and the 24-years-older Haydn were good friends. She attributed this to both having “a wacky sense of humor.”

Glover later pointed out that Mozart also wrote the Prague Symphony at the time he was composing his epic opera Don Giovanni, and that overtones of the latter piece could be heard in the symphony. In fact, the piece begins with timpani-driven thunder, reminiscent if not quite as ominous as the overture to the opera. (Third Coast Review covered the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Don Giovanni in November.)

Finally, a lesson in brass. The Haydn concerto is not only regarded as the most famous of trumpet concertos. It was the first.

Prior to Haydn’s time, horn blowers played the natural trumpet, which had no valves and very limited range. The introduction of the chromatic trumpet did not occur until the late 18th century, and Haydn was in the thick of it. Haydn was between gigs in 1790 after the death of his principal employer, Nikolaus I of the Hungarian House of Esterházy (known as Nikolaus the Magnificent). So Haydn traveled to England, performed with the royal orchestra there, and learned that performers were playing trumpets with vent holes. He brought this news back to Viennese trumpeter Anton Weidinger, who by trial and error created the first keyed, chromatic trumpet.

Now there’s some history with which you can dazzle your classic music-loving friends.

The next thing we will learn from Music of the Baroque is its plans for its 50th anniversary season that begins next fall. The company plans to announce the schedule at its next program, Rival Divas: Handel & Mozart, which will take place at the North Shore Center in Skokie on Sunday, February 23, and the Harris Theater on Monday, February 24. The program will feature soprano vocal soloists Susanna Phillips and Jane Archibald. Tickets are $25-$85 in Skokie and $10-$85 in Chicago, and can be purchased on the M.O.B. website.