The English Concert - Alison Balsom in Gabriel: An Entertainment with Trumpet

Alison Balsom: “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen - welcome to England at the end of the seventeenth century. Don’t panic. I’m not here to talk. I have this (she holds the trumpet). And, you know, some people hear in this only one thing - a call to arms, a military fanfare, the triumphant crow of a proud and patriotic soldier. But in the 1680s and 90s, Henry Purcell, a composer who means the whole world to me, began to write for it - and tonight, our fragments, scenes and pageants are arguments for its place beyond the battlefield, and for its eloquence on the human condition when words fail us.”

I had the great pleasure of playing with The English Concert under the direction of Harry Bicket for two performances of Alison Balsom in Gabriel: An Entertainment with Trumpet. In an earlier guise the show had enjoyed a season at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013 and it was revisited for two further performances at Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden (Saturday 19th October 2019) and at the Barbican (Monday 21st October 2019).

The performances brought together the director Dominic Dromgoole, actors Jamie Parker (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Jack Farthing (Poldark), Anjana Vasan (Doll’s House) and Amanda Wilkin (Emilia), musicians from The English Concert, soloists Alison Balsom (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Tim Morgan (countertenor) and Gwilym Bowen (tenor), and a chorus (Guildhall Consort) from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

“The trumpeter Alison Balsom, in collaboration with the writer Samuel Adamson and the director Dominic Dromgoole expanded on the notion of a ‘divine trumpeter’ by presenting a mélange of music and text around Henry Purcell (famed for his writing ‘sweeter’ parts for natural trumpet that challenged the instrument’s martial reputation) and his historical context.” - Music OMH

The show, written by Samuel Adamson, consists of a sequence of plays set in 1690s London. The music of Henry Purcell (played by Alison Balsom and The English Concert) interspersed scenes from the life of the trumpeter John Shore and family with other pertinent stories of the age, including: parts of the Fairy Queen; the true story of Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (son of Princess Anne, later Queen Anne), who was born with hydrocephalus and died age 11; and the true story of the soprano Arabella Hunt whose marriage to another woman sparked controversy. Hunt later became one of Queen Mary’s favourite singers; John Hawkins wrote that the Queen asked Hunt to sing the Scottish ballad ‘Cold and Raw’, which “nettled” Purcell, causing him to imitate it in the baseline of ‘May her blest example’ in his Birthday Ode for Queen Mary in 1692.

“Samuel Adamson’s short plays slip lightly between the brief life of the disabled boy heir to the English throne, the transgressive sexuality of a star court soprano and the backstage entanglements of a staging of The Fairy Queen.” - The Guardian

These diverse scenes were adorned with suitable music, allowing for a variety of the trumpet’s guises to be heard. Music by Purcell, Eccles and Handel showcased military, theatrical, regal, tavern and funereal music, allowing us to perform (among several others) Come Ye Sons of Art, Hail Bright Cecilia, The Duke of Gloucester’s Birthday Ode, Eternal Source of Light Divine (Alison Balsom & Tim Morgan), the Act IV Symphony from the Fairy Queen and other extracts from King Arthur, including Come If You Dare, a stunning (memorised) trio in the Act V Symphony from Alison Balsom (trumpet), Alice Evans (violin) and Katharina Spreckelsen (Oboe), the IV Act tune from Dioclesian, the March and Canzona from the Funeral of Queen Mary, and They Shall Be As Happy from the Fairy Queen.

As well as playing in the brass section with Wolfgang 'Hoisi' Gaisbock and Miguel Tantos Sevillano (sackbutt), I also provided the natural trumpets that would be used as props by Jamie Parker and Jack Farthing. I needed to play my natural trumpet in the production so I had to assemble a spare natural trumpet in my workshop at short notice. Fortunately I had been working in the workshop recently and I had enough spare parts to solder together two trumpets. One looked perfectly acceptable, and the other was made from an unfinished bell. Although it looked fine, it was intended to be a rehearsal-only prop, so I replaced it with my Huns Veit natural trumpet for the performances.

I enjoyed being involved in such an interdisciplinary performance and it was great to work with the fantastic musicians of The English Concert and such fine actors, and it was a pleasure to work so closely with Alison Balsom.

All human life is here: Samuel Adamson’s theatrical celebration of Baroque music brings to life the sights, sounds and stories of 17th-century London through the eyes of a court trumpeter.

Alison Balsom’s performances of Purcell and his contemporaries give heart and soul to a bustling, exuberant entertainment; a breathtaking evocation of Restoration London in all its colour, clamour, and glorious chaos. Characters from monarchs to watermen – played by actors Jamie Parker (Harry Potter), Jack Farthing (Poldark), Anjana Vasan (Doll’s House) and Amanda Wilkin (Emilia) – cross paths in a narrative tied together by Balsom’s resplendent natural trumpet-playing. - Barbican

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.