Quiet City

Quiet City

Alison Balsom’s latest album captures that unmistakable spirit of 20th-century American music, by turns reflective, sentimental, generous, and life-affirming. Quiet City takes its name and title track from a miniature masterwork by Aaron Copland—the album then leads listeners on a journey through the borderlands between classical and jazz, a space open to the half-light of street scenes after dark, the meeting of old- and new-world sensibilities, and visionary music. It provides a platform, above all, for Balsom’s spellbinding ability to make her instrument sing no matter how tricky or stamina-sapping the composition. Quiet City germinated from seeds planted in 2017, when the trumpeter accepted an invitation from the Britten Sinfonia to take part in the Sound Unbound festival at London’s Barbican Centre. “They asked me to perform the first part of Sketches of Spain, Gil Evans’ arrangement for Miles Davis of the “Adagio” from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez,” she recalls. “I wasn’t sure I was the right person for it—I thought they should probably be asking a jazz musician. But when I looked at the score, I saw it had been created like a classical piece. It was an opportunity to say, ‘OK, if you’re asking me to do this, I’ll give it my best shot.’” Balsom and the Britten Sinfonia regrouped at the Barbican’s Milton Court concert hall in September 2021 to reprise Sketches of Spain. They also placed Copland’s Quiet City in company with Simon Wright’s anything-but-quiet arrangement of the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Warner Classics recorded the concert live and convened subsequent sessions to catch Ives’ The Unanswered Question, the Lonely Town “Pas de deux” from Bernstein’s On the Town, and another Gil Evans gem, “My Ship” from Kurt Weill’s 1941 Broadway musical, Lady in the Dark. “It was so important to me that we had that energy of a live performance,” says Balsom. “We were like, ‘Right, we’re recording the concert. We’ll do any patching in the sessions afterwards. But this way gets the energy of the Gershwin.’ As much as I find it interesting to record things that are very soulful and expressive, which is what most of the pieces on this album are, I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s have something for people who really want to hear fireworks.’ Rhapsody in Blue is a bit of razzmatazz. I just couldn’t resist it!” Read on, as Alison Balsom guides us through each track on her album Quiet City. Quiet City (Aaron Copland) “This was key to the whole album. I’ve known this piece since I was a teenager studying at London’s Guildhall School of Music with my wonderful teacher John Miller. I was already in love with the trumpet and had been playing for several years. But Quiet City suddenly gave me a new understanding of the instrument as a lyrical voice, that there was a way of playing this music that resonated with the way I played the trumpet. It’s so masterful and so expressive, and physically demanding to play these long lines, to make them sing. It was a joy to record a piece that I’ve known for so many years with the Britten Sinfonia and Nicholas Daniel, one of the world’s greatest cor anglais players. Copland’s composition is so visually evocative to me. He originally wrote it as incidental music for a play and later arranged the piece for trumpet, cor anglais, and strings. I immediately imagine that cityscape, looking out over New York City when you’re alone, staring at an apartment block and seeing life happening beyond you, somewhere else. It felt like a symbol of being a soloist, communicating with others while being alone. That’s something I think all of us felt in diverse ways during lockdown—this sense that we were all in this together but isolated and solitary with so much time to think. The music of Quiet City has always made me feel like that.” On the Town, Act I: Lonely Town. Pas de deux (Leonard Bernstein) “There was so much great music to choose from when I was trying to work out what might be on the recording. I did that thing of ticking off pieces from American musical theater, film, everything. It was an extensive list, but as it boiled down, I realized it was important to me that Bernstein should be part of the mix. I couldn’t find the right thing until my husband [the film and stage director Sam Mendes] suggested this piece to me. I didn’t know it but thought, ‘Yes, this is exactly the mood, the intention for the whole album.’ Even though it’s only three minutes long, I think it needs to be there. The Bernstein estate allowed me to take a couple of cor anglais lines for myself in the arrangement, so I was able to extend the original’s bluesy muted trumpet solo. The Lonely Town ‘Pas de deux,’ which happens in Central Park at night in the original show, contains echoes of the slow movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto.” Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin) “I discovered while I was planning the album that Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was about to come out of copyright at the beginning of 2020. But my big mistake was that it was the original version for two pianos and jazz band, not the orchestration that everybody knows and loves. That was definitely not out of copyright! When I asked Simon Wright to arrange the jazz band version, I said, ‘Keep the piano, but let’s have a trumpet part that interweaves with it.’ I thought it would be a medium-sized job; in fact, what I was asking him to do was to rewrite every single line and completely reorchestrate the two-piano version. It was an enormous task, which Simon didn’t shy away from. I think he did a fantastic job. It was an extraordinary feat for him to reorchestrate the entire thing and great fun for me to work on it with the pianist Tom Poster, my great friend and collaborator.” The Unanswered Question (Charles Ives) “The Unanswered Question is arguably the most sophisticated thing on the album, and certainly the most modern sounding. Yet it’s the earliest piece there, which is hard to believe. It’s like when you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and realize, ‘Well, yeah, everything since is just a variation—there’s nothing more innovative than that.’ I feel the same way about this piece. It’s a privilege that Ives wrote this soulful solo trumpet part. It’s an expression of what he calls ‘The Perennial Question of Existence.’ Ives sets it against mystical sustained string chords, which he labels ‘The Silence of the Druids,’ and interrupts them with short blasts from a woodwind quartet, the ‘Fighting Answerers.’ I can’t think of anything that’s more of our time than that.” Concierto de Aranjuez (Joaquin Rodrigo, arranged by Gil Evans) “Miles Davis expressed his personality through his trumpet. And he was effortlessly stylish. He didn’t feel the need to do what Dizzy Gillespie, for example, was doing with the trumpet. That wasn’t him—that was someone else. OK, so Miles is Miles, and his is a totally different world to the one I inhabit. Yet, at the same time, I’m fascinated by that place where all the genres meet. Jazz musicians and classical composers of his time had such respect for each other even though they were doing different things. And mid-20th-century America was the perfect example of where they were all influencing each other, doing their own thing but open to each other’s influences. I had a wonderful time doing it and was amazed by the skills of the Britten Sinfonia, who played with so much panache and style.” My Ship (Kurt Weill, arranged by Gil Evans) “I love the idea that none of the music on this album is new, but that it’s presented in a new way so listeners can hear it in a new way. There are many firsts on here for me, but perhaps the most important are these Gil Evans arrangements. They were written for the studio, not for live performance. They were made for the microphone to the point where I was almost touching it, it’s so close-mic’d. That makes a huge contrast to what you usually hear from the trumpet. You don’t get any of the bloom and blossom you expect to hear in Baroque music, for example, where it’s all about resonance and making sounds like angel trumpets coming from Heaven rather than the night-clubby, noir sound of My Ship. That was exciting and new for me. It’s about crossing over between jazz and classical genres, and the boundaries of listening, imagining, and looking.”

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