Bold as Brass - Phil News

Trumpet sensation Tine Thing Helseth talks to Richard Betts about life as a prodigy, choosing to play and surviving cancer.

Tine Thing Helseth has had an odd day. The evening before we speak, Norway’s main television station screened a documentary about the trumpet star, and since then she’s had strangers greeting her in the street.

With a population only slightly larger than ours, Norway, like New Zealand, is a place where you can become very famous, very fast. But Helseth was a public figure before the documentary. She’s always on TV and radio, and then there’s the small matter of being one of the world’s leading brass players.

“It’s good [the documentary showed] that classical musicians can also be normal people,” she says. “So when people come up to me and say things, it’s because they think I’m famous for what I do, and not just because I’m someone they see on TV; it’s not like I’m a celebrity for being a celebrity.”

It’s rare for a classical musician to be a celebrity at all, but then Helseth is a rare classical musician. From childhood she seemed destined for greatness, and she always dreamed of being one of the few brass players to make it as a touring soloist. When did she know she was good enough?

“I don’t know,” she admits. “I mastered it fast and people said I was good, and at a young age I realised that not everyone could do what I did. But mostly I remember the feeling I got when I played: this is what I’m supposed to do in life, the sense that this is my purpose and I get to express myself and music is the place I get to be me.”

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

Right, job done then. Next stop, the BBC Proms. Not quite.

“It’s wrong to say it just happened because it’s a lot of work. You can’t just be a prodigy. I had a lot of great people around me who looked after me and tried to make sure this is what I really wanted to do. You have to master your instrument and know stuff technically, but then you need to have something to say that makes people connect with you or want to listen to you and be part of that communication. I guess I was 15 or 16 when I decided, Yeah, I’ll go for this, but you have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Here’s an example: in 2022, aged 34 and at the peak of her profession, Helseth was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Thankfully, she is now cancer free, but on top of dealing with the disease, the treatment left her so unwell that she was unable to play.

“It made me really sick,” Helseth says. “I’m travelling and playing [now] but it’s a long journey to come back. It’s important to talk about it because people are happy when the cancer is gone – and I am happy, of course – but a lot of patients struggle with side effects. I suffer from severe fatigue, just being exhausted in a way that slowly gets better but it’s a kind of exhaustion that sleep and rest don’t fix. You adjust your life.”

Helseth says she is wary of cliches about her brush with mortality causing her to see the world in a new light, but that in many ways it’s true.

“Life will never be the same as it was before. Things change; you realise in a real way that life is fragile and you have to live for now. I balance playing and doing other things. I do one thing every day that feels good: eating good food, watching a movie with my husband, small things. I know there are more important things than trumpet, and that’s a good thing.”

If her illness has given Helseth a new perspective on life, has it changed the way she experiences music?

“Other things are more important than playing, but in a way that makes playing even more important, because I choose to do it. When I started playing again I was, Okay, is being a musician what I want to do? And if I’m to be a musician, I need to play in a way I want to play. It’s hard work and it’s stressful but it’s also the most amazing thing. So it’s even more special that somehow I still get to travel the world and play with incredible musicians to wonderful audiences.”

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

May’s Totally Trumpet concert – rescheduled from 2022 after Helseth withdrew to deal with her illness – is the first time New Zealand audiences will see the trumpeter on stage. She’ll bring with her two concertos, but not the ones you’d expect. Like every trumpet soloist, her early career was littered with performances of Haydn and Hummel.

“Those are great pieces and when I do them now, which is not often, it’s fun,” Helseth says. “But there is so much other great music I want to do.”

As a result, in Auckland she’ll play concertos by Pakhmutova and Penderecki, works that will likely be known only to trumpet specialists.

Penderecki was one of the great figures of mid-to-late 20th century music, famed for avant-garde masterpieces like the St Luke Passion and Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, a work that shocked and challenged generations of Kiwi School Certificate music students. Ahem. The composer’s Trumpet Concertino, a wee thing clocking in at around 12 minutes, is a lighter work.

“There are a lot of rhythmical, talking elements,” Helseth says. “It’s very tonal, with a lovely melody in the second movement with flugelhorn – long lines with soft strings, really magical stuff. The orchestration is cool, it has a bit of an edge, a little bit of rock ’n’ roll.”

In contrast to Penderecki with his international following, Aleksandra Pakhmutova, still alive at 94, is largely unknown outside Russia, where she is famous for her film and TV scores, and more than 400 songs. Helselth puts Pakhmutova’s trumpet concerto into a similar bracket as Arutiunian’s, a brass staple last played by the Auckland Phil a decade or so ago.

“Trumpet repertoire is a bit limited; we have no solo repertoire from the Romantic period, so we have quasi-late-Romantic pieces like the Arutiunian and the Pakhmutova. It’s a bit folky, Eastern-European, with a lot of passion; I’ve played it a lot and I’m about to record it.”

So much for taking things easy. And if touring and recording weren’t enough, Helseth is artistic director of the Risør Kammermusikkfest, which takes place on Norway’s south coast, and is sited around a 450-year-old church.

“It’s a small and big festival at the same time,” Helseth says. “You can walk everywhere but it’s packed with concerts of different genres and has something for everyone, so everyone feels included. With classical music, people often think they need to know stuff to listen. What I hope with the festival is that people might walk into a garden concert and think, ‘Oh, this is cool, perhaps I should go into the church and hear Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time’, and maybe it’s the most amazing thing they’ve ever heard. The important thing was that they felt they could go and listen to it. That’s the key to getting great experiences: to feel you’re welcome.”

The New Zealand Herald Premier Series: Totally Trumpet
7.30pm, Thursday 23 May
Auckland Town Hall

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