Carving out a solo career is difficult enough if you're a pianist or violinist. Imagine the odds of making a go of it with the trumpet - which has a smaller repertoire and less of a niche as a solo instrument.
Alison Balsom has done it. Despite the shrinking of the recording industry, the EMI label signed her to make CDs. In what might be the ultimate confirmation, she landed a spot on her native England's splashiest musical event: Last Night of the Proms, the closing concert of the BBC's generations-old summer series.
At that point, she says, "I thought, 'I think I'm safe now. I think I've got a career in the bag.'"
Balsom, who's 32, takes center stage with the Charlotte Symphony on Friday and Saturday, when she'll solo in the trumpet concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel - a student of Mozart and friend of Beethoven. From that, you might not guess that Balsom took some of her first impressions of the trumpet from recordings by jazz master Dizzy Gillespie.
"He's an amazing trumpeter," she says. "He could play really high and show off and be very virtuosic. But he really made the trumpet sing. It was quite moving and subtle - like a voice. "
Balsom was in the British equivalent of elementary school when she noticed that. At 7, children could start studying an instrument. She went for the trumpet.
She hadn't heard the stereotype of brass instruments as the territory of boys, not girls.
"When you're 7, you're a bit young for gender stereotypes," she says. "(For instance,) you're friends with both boys and girls. I just thought it was a great instrument." By the time the cliché reached her, four or five years later, it was too late.
"I was already committed," she says.
Her school's training was oriented toward classical music, not jazz. So following in Gillespie's path wasn't an option. But she found that the variety of sound and character she heard in his playing suited the trumpet's role in classical works, too.
"Of course the trumpet is very extroverted," she says. "But like any instrument played well, it has to have other sides.... It can also be quite subtle and elegant."
"It's not easy to do that," she adds. "But I think that's what we all should be aiming for."
Played for Warren-Green
One of Balsom's first breaks came when she won a competition for students. The prize was a concerto performance with one of London's top orchestras. The conductor: Christopher Warren-Green, future leader of the Charlotte Symphony.
For a student, she recalls, stepping in front of a major-league orchestra "was really scary."
"Chris is a really charismatic, big personality," Balsom says. "But he made me incredibly welcome." The concert earned her "a vote of confidence from him, which I was very grateful for."
That converted into employment when Warren-Green brought her into his London Chamber Orchestra.
"She makes the trumpet sing like a cello," Warren-Green says.
Even after her solo career took off, Warren-Green says, Balsom kept coming back to play in the orchestra.
He says he finally had to give her a nudge, saying it didn't look right for an up-and-coming soloist to keep playing in an orchestra:
"I told her, 'Alison, you can't keep doing this.'"
'Can you hear this?'
She finally moved on. But her stint with the orchestra lets her give his new Charlotte audience a glimpse of what it's like to play for Warren-Green. She notes that he, too, started out as an orchestral musician.
"I think that's a fantastic place for a conductor to be coming from," she says, "because they can put themselves in (the musicians') shoes.... He facilitates everyone being able to listen to each other. He says, 'Can you hear this? Can you hear that?' He guides the orchestra through the piece very cleverly... and just lets it be free."
But, she adds, he's still in charge.
"He's got a real hawk eye," Balsom says. "You can sit in the orchestra... and feel that he's watching just you the whole time.... He listens for every single thing you do."