Q&A with Alison Balsom and Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet Mark Hughes

Trumpet virtuoso and furniture restorer Alison Balsom

Alison Balsom, trumpet virtuoso and furniture restorer

Alison Balsom, British trumpeter extraordinaire and recipient of the 2013 Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” title, will be gracing the Jones Hall stage on September 13 for the 2014-2015 Season Opening Night Concert. Recently, the Houston Symphony’s own principal trumpet Mark Hughes got to ask her some questions about her career and musical experiences, one trumpet player to another.

Mark Hughes: You have a beautiful singing approach to your playing. Was this something that came naturally to you or would you say you had to develop that style?

Alison Balsom: I think all instrumentalists refer to the singing voice to understand phrasing and making a line, whether consciously or not. After all we are just communicating. When I don’t understand a musical idea, I sing it for a while and it then makes sense.

MH: Growing up in the UK, did you spend much time playing cornet in a brass band? If so, how did this influence you?

AB: I did. I started the cornet and the trumpet at exactly the same time and therefore had the benefit of playing the violin role in the orchestra, i.e. you play all the time, the best melodies and learn to listen to those around you and meld into that sound. It’s a perfect training for a brass player.

Mark Hughes, Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet

Mark Hughes, Houston Symphony Principal Trumpet

MH: Who have been your most influential teachers and mentors?

AB: My most influential teacher was definitely John Miller, who payed in the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Wallace Collection. I had him teach me from ages 13- 20, and he taught me everything there is to know about sound production and the zen art of making this physically demanding instrument feel almost yogic.

MH: Other than hard work, what would you suggest to young aspiring trumpeters wanting to have a careers as soloists?

AB: Go to concerts and listen listen listen to the best music and musicians you can find. I would name Martha Argerich, Claudio Abbado, Maxim Vengerov, Fabio Biondi, Murray Perahia, Pekka Kuusisto, Andras Schiff, John Elliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock, and Maria João Pires, just off the top of my head, whose musicianship and charisma have totally inspired me throughout my solo life.

MH: I’m a huge fan of the recording you did on natural trumpet, in fact, it’s the best natural trumpet playing I’ve ever heard! Your artistry, command and phrasing is unmatched. How long have you been playing a natural instrument and what kind of instrument do you use?

AB: I have been playing since I was in the 3rd year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – so since I was 21. I just fell in love with this instrument as soon as I started learning it, as it makes total sense of the whole Baroque era in terms of phrasing, colour and the difference in keys and certain notes of the scale, which you lose on a modern instrument such as the piccolo. I play various different makes but my favourite is by Egger of Switzerland.

MH: How much time are you away from home each year? Does your son travel with you?

AB: Not so much actually. I am so fortunate that I can pick and choose when I go away now, and although I used to orbit the Globe constantly, now I just do the concerts that are irristable and that fit with my schedule.

MH: I know you do not always perform with orchestras and that sometimes you perform full recitals. With that kind of endurance demand, you must have to practice a fair amount. When traveling, where do you practice? Do you find it difficult to practice in hotels? Do you use mutes of any kind?

AB: I try not to use mutes as of course the majority of that practice is for stamina rather than learning technical things, and so the best sound production technique is paramount. I do just practice in hotel rooms most of the time and miraculously I’ve never had a complaint – which is not a boast, as it can’t be because it sounds good, as I’m usually playing endless arpeggios and scales! Maybe hotels always put me at the end of the corridor?

Balsom 3 photo cr - Maker

Alison Balsom

MH: What do you like to do in your spare time? Hobbies?

AB: I’m obsessed with interior design and furniture restoration. If I’m not practising or doing a concert or recording, you’ll find me in the shed… not ‘wood shedding’ as the great Wynton Marsalis calls practicing, but literally ‘wood shedding!’ – with a piece of sand paper!


Don’t miss Opening Night with the Houston Symphony!

Opening Night with Andrés
September 13 at 7:30 PM
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Alison Balsom, trumpet

Buy tickets now!

Saluting the official start of his Inaugural Season, Andrés leads the Opening Night concert with Alison Balsom, British trumpeter extraordinaire and recipient of the 2013 Gramophone Awards “Artist of the Year” title. The concert opens with Mozart’s delightful Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Balsom performs Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, and the night concludes with Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky’s ten-movement suite, in a brilliant orchestration by Maurice Ravel.

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Q&A with Jason Alexander and the Houston Symphony

Jason Alexander

Multi-talented star Jason Alexander will perform with the Houston Symphony in September.

While many are familiar with Jason Alexander’s unforgettable, nine-season performance as George Costanza on the hit sitcom Seinfeld, musical theater aficionados know him as a Tony Award-winning man of the stage. Recently, I had the chance to ask Jason Alexander some questions about his career on Broadway in advance of his upcoming show with the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall.

Calvin Dotsey: What first attracted you to the performing arts?

Jason Alexander: No part of the performing arts world didn’t attract me. Plus, I thought it would be a good way to meet girls.

CD: How did you first get involved in the performing arts?

JA: At the behest of a girl. But that’s a story I tell in the show.

CD: Are there any actors or other performers who have particularly inspired you?

JA: Inspired is the wrong word. More like enticed. And the list is long and varied, filled with well-known names and some you’ve never heard of, too.  Great performances are enticing. They make you believe you can get up and do it, too. They also make you believe you can’t do it.

CD: Most people know you for creating the character of George Costanza on Seinfeld, but you have also had a distinguished Broadway career, including a Tony Award-winning performance in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. How did you become involved in that show?

JA: I was invited to audition by my friend Emmanuel Azenberg, the lead producer of the show.  I went in and auditioned for Mr. Robbins and he was very insistent that I join the show immediately thereafter.

CD: What was it like working with Jerome Robbins?

Principal POPS Conductor Michael Krajewski will lead the orchestra during Jason Alexander's performance.

Principal POPS Conductor Michael Krajewski will lead the orchestra during Jason Alexander’s performances.

JA: Books have been written on this subject. Jerry was a very complicated and gifted man. There were times when you were working with a genius and times when you are working with a demon. You rarely knew which one would show up from day to day or moment to moment. However, in totality, it was an extraordinary experience and one that I am grateful to have had.

CD: What role did you play in the show?

JA: I played 14 different characters over the course of the evening. I guess it was flashy enough to win me that Tony award.

CD: Having worked in live theater, film, and television, do you have a preference?

JA: They each have their pros and cons. However, nothing beats playing for a live audience for an artist who cares about their work. It is the most challenging and the most rewarding kind of performing any artist can do.

CD: What are your current professional ambitions and dreams? What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

JA: We all want the same thing – to work with good material and with great people. Every time I get to do that, regardless of the medium, I am overjoyed. I also am making a concerted effort to have directing and teaching and writing become more of my professional life.

CD: Are you involved in any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

JA: I have two television projects in the works. I have a film making the festival circuit called Lucky Stiff. And I perform my one man shows across the country and around the world. Come see it if you can.

Don’t miss Jason Alexander with the Houston Symphony!

Jason Alexander: An Evening of Comedy and Song
September 5, 6, 7, 2014
Michael Krajewski, conductor
Jason Alexander, vocalist

Buy tickets now!

Tony Award® winner and multi-talented star of the ground-breaking hit TV show Seinfeld, Jason Alexander joins the orchestra for his first-ever symphonic performance in Texas. Alexander engages you for an evening of music and laughs as he reminisces about his remarkable and versatile career on the stage and screen. Hear songs from Broadway’s Music ManPippin and Merrily We Roll Along.

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A Cellist in Colombia – Brinton Smith works with Youth Orchestra

Brinton Averil Smith, Principle Cellist of the Houston Symphony

Brinton Averil Smith, Principle Cellist of the Houston Symphony

Recently, Houston Symphony principal cellist Brinton Smith and principal trumpet Mark Hughes went to sunny Santa Marta, Colombia to teach and mentor young musicians in the Colombian National Youth Orchestra.  Below are Brinton Smith’s own reflections on their experiences there.  

It is difficult to believe that it has been more than a week since principal trumpet Mark Hughes and I—still groggy from the previous evening’s Fourth of July concert at Miller—boarded planes to take us to Bogota, Colombia en route to our residency with the Colombian National Youth Orchestra (Filarmonica Joven de Colombia). After a short night in Bogota, we boarded another flight bound for Barranquilla, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and I quickly began to regret my poor Spanish language skills when I tried to explain to the Avianca counter attendant that my cello also had a plane ticket! (Any valuable cello needs a separate full fare ticket each time it travels, or else disaster is eventually inevitable.)

Houston Symphony principal trumpet Mark Hughes follows the rehearsal with the other faculty members.

Houston Symphony principal trumpet Mark Hughes follows the rehearsal with the other faculty members.

A driver from the youth orchestra met us at Barranquilla and drove us the 60 miles around the bay to Santa Marta, where the orchestra spends a week in intensive rehearsals before its national tour. Begun in 2010, the Filharmonica project unites the best young players, ranging from high school through age 25, from around Colombia. They are selected each year by recorded audition, and then meet for four intensive residencies and tours throughout the year. The foundation flies in professional orchestral leaders and professors from around the world to work with the players of each instrument during their weeks of rehearsal residency. Our own connection to the group comes from Andrés, who recently agreed to become the director of the Filharmonica. While his busy career precludes him from being at all the residencies, the students clearly relish the time they have with him. You can imagine what it means to be a young player in a country whose classical traditions are just beginning to be established to work with someone who is not only one of the very best in the world, but also a fellow Colombian!

The beautiful Caribbean beach we never have time to enjoy!

The beautiful Caribbean beach we never have time to enjoy!

Colombians say that they are simultaneously a first, second, and third world country, but the beautiful resort in Santa Marta shows little evidence of the latter; the scars of a multi-generational civil war and the simultaneous violence of the drug cartels are clearly beginning to heal. Andres talks of regularly seeing bodies on the side of the road when he was young, but the generation of this youth orchestra is growing up in a different country, with a booming economy (recently discovered oil reserves are likely to soon make Colombia the second largest oil exporter in South America and may be a source of further ties with Houston). While barbed wire and security posts remain around many buildings as reminders of the old days, today the threat of violence is mostly a distant memory, and the students of this youth orchestra know a country of growth, optimism, and opportunity. With towering mountain ranges, lush rainforests, tropical beaches, and everything in between, Colombia is perhaps the most diverse and beautiful country in the Americas, and Colombians are also among the friendliest people you will ever meet. Not every person can match Andrés’ buoyant cheerfulness, but in this country you can at least see where it comes from.


Peacocks beg at the lunch tables!

Unlike El Sistema in Venezuala, which is intended first as a social project and only secondarily concerned with the music, the Filharmonica Joven de Colombia is primarily focused on music. Students come from all walks of life, but are selected solely on ability and desire. Their goal is to improve their own individual playing, as well as that of the orchestra, and they follow a schedule that seems almost impossibly grueling to those of us who are coaching them. There are breaks for meals—in Colombia there is a tradition of small snacks in late morning and early afternoon, in addition to the main meals and it has all been excellent. We are not losing any weight here! But aside from these breaks, the students begin rehearsal at 9:00 AM and continue the schedule of full orchestra rehearsals, family (wind, brass or string) sectionals, individual instrument sectionals, and chamber music rehearsals until 10:00 at night. Last night I scheduled an extra master class for them in the evening and finally let them go at 10:40, but even then they were eager to keep going, and still had more questions! Their hard work pays off. Their ambitious program of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, along with Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, the Abe marimba concerto (both with accomplished Colombian soloists) and a recent Colombian composer’s work has pulled together impressively in this week and the concerts should be excellent.


Petrushka loving iguana!

A few things that I know I will remember from our time here: the beautiful beach (although since we work on the student’s schedule, I still haven’t found any time to do anything more than look at it!); the incredible selection of exotic juices at every meal, many from fruits unknown in the States and some not even known outside of this local area of Colombia; the iguanas living wild in the trees, one of whom walked past our window bobbing his head as the cellos rehearsed excerpts from Petrushka; and, most of all, the friendliness, devotion and excitement of the students. I have never seen a group of students who have worked this hard, always with a good attitude, and who have been so eager to drain every drop they can from this experience. I’m often tired of being in a foreign land, of sitting in endless rehearsals, missing my family and home (and my daughter’s 13th birthday), but every time I work with these kids, I come away excited, energized, and hopeful. I’m grateful to be able to share with them the secrets of a beauty that transcends both our worlds, and to be a part of the deepening relationship between our orchestras and our countries. If they represent the future of Colombia, it will be truly extraordinary, and I’m glad to know them.

See Andrés live! Learn more about our ¡Bienvenido, Andrés! Weekend:
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Music Director
September 12 at Miller Outdoor Theatre – FREE Bienvenido, Andrés Concert
September 13 at Jones Hall – Opening Night with Andrés Concert
September 14 at Jones Hall – Annual FREE Fiesta Sinfonica Concert


The Filharmonica cellists are Houston Symphony and Andrés fans!


Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Classical, Conductors and Musicians, eNews Article | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Story of Mariachi Music Continued

This post is continued from a previous post, which you can read here.

Last time, we discovered the Jaliscan origins of Mariachi music and the economic and social forces of industrialization and revolution that transformed the sound of Mariachi. The evolution of Mariachi music was far from complete, however; the plain clothes and humble status of Mariachi musicians would make performances from this period hard to recognize for audiences today. As the history of Mexico progressed, so too did that of the Mariachi tradition.

A charro about to attempt the "Pass of Death."

A charro about to attempt the “Pass of Death.”

During the post-revolutionary period the image of Mariachi ensembles began to take on its modern form. The colorful clothes of Mariachi ensembles today come from charros, the charreada, and early twentieth century Mexican cinema. Charros were Mexican cowboys who could perform amazing feats at charreadas, special rodeos with events like bull wrestling and jumping onto wild mares from the backs of running horses (known as the “Pass of Death,” some show-offs liked to do this trick backwards). Deserved or not, Charros became known for their flamboyant sartorial choices, macho attitudes, hard drinking, and womanizing. Unsurprisingly, charro-themed films became popular in Mexico, and the music chosen to symbolize the swashbuckling charro lifestyle was Mariachi. Henceforth, Mariachi ensembles began to adopt the dazzling charro style costumes we are familiar with today.

Although the Mexican Revolution officially ended in 1920, unrest continued to flare up during the following decade, and as the years progressed the new leaders of Mexico became eager to forge a strong sense of nationalism and to create a Mexican culture that would unite the entire country. They seized upon the increasingly popular Mariachi music as the musical glue that would hold Mexico together and began funding cultural projects to record and broadcast Mariachi throughout Mexico and the world. Mariachi ensembles became increasingly professional and technically accomplished, and Mariachi as the official music of Mexico was born.

Mariachi Cobre

Mariachi Cobre

The next time you hear Mariachi music, remember that this tradition isn’t just the aural equivalent of a postcard from Mexico. These songs are full of the sorrows and joys of generations, and reflect the dynamic history and culture of an ancient and fascinating country. The charreadas, the charros and Mariachi music no doubt appeal to nostalgia for a simpler time that, upon reflection, likely never existed. These songs embody the passions and yearnings of an entire people, universal emotions we can all relate to.

Since its mid-century rise to fame, Mariachi music has continued to evolve and transform itself as it has come into contact with new influences and spread throughout the world. Artists like Lola Betran and Lucha Villa gave the traditionally masculine genre powerful female voices and perspectives, and Mariachi music is now widely taught throughout schools in the United States. This Friday, Mariachi Cobre, one of today’s leading Mariachi ensembles, will continue this tradition of experimentation and innovation by performing a one-night-only concert with the Houston Symphony led by conductor Stuart Chafetz in what is sure to be an exhilarating evening that will take this music to places its first performers could only have dreamed of.

To purchase tickets for Mariachi Cobre, click here.


Ehecatzin. Charros Competing in a Charreada in Mexico. 2004. Flickr. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 23 July 2014.
Gonzales, Geraldo. Guadalajara Mariachis. 2006. Flickr. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 23 July 2014.
Gonzales, Sylvia. “History of the Mariachi.” Mexico, The Meeting of Two Cultures. New York: Higgins and Associates, 1991. N. pag. History of the Mariachi. Web. 23 July 2014.
Merrill, Tim L., and Ramón Miró, eds. Mexico: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1996. Mexico. U.S. Library of Congress. Web. 23 July 2014.
Nájera-Ramírez, Olga. “FolkStreams » La Charreada: Rodeo a La Mexicana » La Charreada in the USA.” FolkStreams » La Charreada: Rodeo a La Mexicana » La Charreada in the USA. FolkStreams, 2000. Web. 23 July 2014.
Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Specials, Symphony Summer in the City | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Untold Story of Mariachi Music

Mariachis performing in Guadalajara.

Mariachis performing in Guadalajara.

Today, Mariachi music is an unmistakable symbol of Mexico and Mexican culture throughout the world. There are Mariachi ensembles in the UK, Croatia, Ecuador, Egypt, and Sweden, not to mention Mexico and the United States. Few people realize that Mariachi music as we know it today only recently evolved as part of the political, social, and economic developments of twentieth century Mexican history. The story of Mariachi is a story of revolution, urbanization, industrialization, yearning for the past, and the quest to forge a uniquely Mexican national identity. In many ways, to know the story of Mariachi is to know the story of Mexico itself.

The state of Jalisco.

The state of Jalisco.

No one is sure where the word “Mariachi” came from. According to one oft-repeated but discredited legend, the word “Mariachi” is derived from the French marriage because when the French briefly conquered Mexico in the 1860s (while US was too busy with the Civil War to enforce the Monroe Doctrine), the French liked to hire musicians to perform this music at weddings. In fact, the word predates the French occupation of Mexico, and might even have its origins in one of the native languages of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The style of music that would become Mariachi arose in the Jalisco region of Mexico, and was also called son jaliscience. Field hands who worked on haciendas originally performed this music, especially to mark special occasions and to accompany dancing. Apparently, workers who could also play music were paid more than workers who could not. This early predecessor of Mariachi used mostly string instruments such as violins, guitars, and harps, and performers usually wore the plain white clothes of Mexican peasants.

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz

This began to change under the reign of Porfirio Diaz, the president who famously ran on a “no reelection” campaign only to serve seven terms in office. Diaz attempted to bring the industrial revolution to Mexico, and while the economy thrived under his rule, he also oversaw a corrupt and often brutally oppressive political system. Mexico had always been a land of staggering economic inequality, but by the end of the Diaz era, 95% of Mexican land was owned by less than 5% of the population, and after Diaz blatantly gave up any pretense of democracy during the election of 1910 (he threw his opponent in jail on election day), the country descended into a revolution and civil war that would last ten years.

Industrialization, urbanization, and the Mexican Revolution forever changed the hacienda way of life that had given rise to the son jaliscience. As the old haciendas faltered in the new economic and political reality, field workers were let go, and many of them moved to cities in search of new opportunities. The ones who could play music often used their skills to earn a living or supplement their incomes in the new world in which they found themselves. New influences began to transform the old style of music: cross pollination with jazz, Cuban music, and European waltzes and polkas led to the introduction of trumpets to the traditional ensemble of strings and gave rise to the modern Mariachi sound.

While Mariachi had begun to take on its modern sound by the end of the Mexican Revolution, audiences today would be puzzled by Mariachi performances of this period: Mariachi was not yet seen as a symbol of Mexico, but as the sound of humble urban street performers, and the brilliant costumes Mariachis wear today were nowhere to be seen. Check back tomorrow to discover where today’s Mariachi look and status came from, and to find out how the Mariachi tradition continues to evolve today!

To hear some fantastic Mariachi music in Houston, come to the Houston Symphony’s Mariachi Cobre concert this Friday! You can get tickets here.


Ehecatzin. Charros Competing in a Charreada in Mexico. 2004. Flickr. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 23 July 2014.
Gonzales, Geraldo. Guadalajara Mariachis. 2006. Flickr. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 23 July 2014.
Gonzales, Sylvia. “History of the Mariachi.” Mexico, The Meeting of Two Cultures. New York: Higgins and Associates, 1991. N. pag. History of the Mariachi. Web. 23 July 2014.
Merrill, Tim L., and Ramón Miró, eds. Mexico: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1996. Mexico. U.S. Library of Congress. Web. 23 July 2014.
Nájera-Ramírez, Olga. “FolkStreams » La Charreada: Rodeo a La Mexicana » La Charreada in the USA.” FolkStreams » La Charreada: Rodeo a La Mexicana » La Charreada in the USA. FolkStreams, 2000. Web. 23 July 2014.
Posted in 2014-2015 Season, Specials, Symphony Summer in the City | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment