Balsom’s Star Power Lights Up Musgrave’s New Trumpet Concerto

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Thea Musgrave, 93, wrote her Trumpet Concerto in 2019. It received its U.S. premiere July 20 by trumpeter Alison Balsom with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Photo by Kate Mount)

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Philharmonic promised a more-or-less full season at its summer home, the Hollywood Bowl, during this pandemic summer — and so far it is keeping its promise. The schedule isn’t quite as full as it usually is, but there is more than enough music to satisfy most of the diverse tastes the Phil caters to.

Moreover, I can see the rate of change accelerating in this populist outpost for the orchestra, which is keeping its hand ever more firmly on the pulse of the times in this sapphire-blue state. There is more room for female, Black, and Latino conductors, composers, and soloists than ever before — way more room. Contemporary music seems to be making deeper inroads than it ever has at the Bowl, which is traditionally the range where the warhorses roam. Conspicuously getting the short stick of the bundle is jazz: The annual Playboy Jazz Festival was scratched, and though there is a “Jazz +” series, only a Sept. 26 concert featuring Herbie Hancock, the LA Phil creative chair For jazz, might qualify as a true jazz night — and Hancock is famous for straying way beyond that field anyway.

On the night of July 20, in the second week of the classical weekday schedule, not one but two new works — a U.S. premiere and a world premiere — made it onto the program, with the main draw, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the usual Ravel orchestration, displaying a kinship with one of the new pieces (more on that later). The young conductor du jour was Tianyi Lu — born in Shanghai, a Dudamel Fellow at the LA Phil in 2017-18, and currently the female conductor in residence at the Welsh National Opera.

We can dispatch the world premiere pretty quickly — a four-minute prelude by Spanish composer-trombonist Ricardo Mollá, Fanfare for a New Beginning for brass and percussion, which began with a sparkling splash of sound but soon fell into a disorganized mass of cinematic rhetoric, not particularly well played (were they sight-reading?).

Alison Balsom was the soloist in the U.S. premiere of Thea Musgrave’s Trumpet Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl.

More interesting and impressive was the U.S. premiere of a trumpet concerto (2019) by Thea Musgrave, now 93, who was present to stand and wave to the crowd. Musgrave has written concertos for clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, and other instruments, mostly set in a multi-movement, continuously played, 20- to 25-minute form, some of which have a programmatic element — as does this one. This time, she took her inspiration from a walk through an Edinburgh exhibition of nature paintings by fellow Scot Victoria Crowe, whose works were helpfully projected onto the giant Bowl video screens as the music illustrated each in turn.

Composed for the star British trumpeter Alison Balsom, who played the piece smoothly and evenly from memory, the concerto is essentially gentler in tone than the more turbulent earlier Musgrave concertos I’ve heard, falling somewhere between tonality and not. It also has a theatrical element of interaction between the soloist and members of the orchestra, a Musgrave trait that was somewhat ahead of its time in earlier works. At one point, LA Phil principal clarinetist Burt Hara was asked to stand during an increasingly intertwined duet with Balsom; the video feed created the illusion that they were side-by-side even though Hara was located several feet behind Balsom. In the last movement, another trumpeter from the extreme right of the large stage competed with Balsom in the distance. As an encore, Balsom added a rambunctious performance of the third movement from the Hummel Trumpet Concerto.

Alas, the LA Phil missed an obvious opportunity in Pictures. Since they were projecting the paintings in the Musgrave concerto, why couldn’t they do the same for some of the surviving Viktor Hartmann paintings that inspired Mussorgsky? I think that would have lessened the element of routine that has understandably crept into too-frequent performances this showpiece. Lu, who has a graceful, animated way with the baton, basically steered the piece through a standard interpretation on short rehearsal time — no unusual tempos other than a slightly slow, rhythmically taut rendition of “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs.”

Tianyi Lu was guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on July 20 at the Hollywood Bowl.

Speaking of routine, the Bowl experience hasn’t changed much in the era of COVID. The picnickers were out and about in the boxes, almost all unmasked throughout the evening; all members except one in the LA Phil were unmasked as well. The food and refreshments stands were all open (they were closed in May for the limited-audience concerts), though none take cash anymore. Aircraft periodically roared overhead, ignoring the searchlights and saving their most noxious intrusions for the softest passages in the music, of course. The usual airport-style security searches took place at the entrances, but no one asked for proof of vaccination, this being an outdoor event.

Even with the new threat of the Delta variant that prompted Los Angeles to reinstate mask requirements indoors over the previous weekend, the Bowl season should be good to go all the way to the end of September.