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Liverpool Philharmonic Blog

In conversation with... Eleanor Alberga

 

When Alim Beisembayev swept all before him in the Leeds International Piano Competition three years ago, part of his extensive first prize was the chance to play at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. The 23-year-old Kazakh virtuoso duly appeared alongside the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra the following week. 

But what his Liverpool audience may not have realised was that not only did Beisembayev triumph in the final of the prestigious competition, but he also took home the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society Prize for contemporary performance for Ligeti’s Études for Piano in his semi-final recital. The reward? A newly commissioned piece to be performed with the Orchestra in a future Liverpool season. 

Photo credit: Ben Ealovega

“He apparently mentioned that he wanted to ask me to write something,” says composer Eleanor Alberga. “And I really wanted to write a piano concerto.” 

The result is a return to Hope Street for the in-demand Beisembayev this month, to perform the world premiere of what – perhaps surprisingly – turns out to be the first piano concerto among the Jamaican-born British composer and pianist’s extensive catalogue of works. 

“I’ve chosen deliberately to stay away from writing very much for the piano until recently,” Alberga explains. “Precisely because I started out as a pianist myself, and I didn’t want to just fall into writing things that felt nice for me to play, and not really use my mind in a slightly different way, which is what I do with other instruments. I wrote quite a few very tonal and a lot of Afro-Caribbean piano pieces years ago, combinations of two pianos or piano duets. And one or two solo piano pieces, but not many. It’s only in the last ten years that I’ve decided it’s time to start. So, it seemed to come together beautifully.” 

The piano featured in Alberga’s life from an early age. She was five when, intrigued by the classical music on the radio – and keyboard lessons she heard going on at the high school her mother founded in the Jamaican capital Kingston she announced to her parents that she would like to learn to play. Indeed, not just learn, but also to be a classical pianist. 

But composing went hand in hand with playing for her almost from the start, with early works including Andy written when she was ten and inspired by her pet dog. 

Alberga, an only child, was taken to classical music concerts by her parents which further fired her ambitions. 

“Apparently my father used to play the clarinet this is before I came along,” she says. “And my mother used to play the piano and the violin, and also sang in choirs. So there was already a love of classical music, and we were very lucky we used to get some wonderful artists coming to Jamaica. I think my mother really wanted me to go to university and become a proper person, you know, like a doctor or a lawyer!” she adds, smiling. “She had been to university herself and was quite a scholar. But she loved the arts so she incorporated that as much as she could in her school.” 

Instead, in 1968 a teenage Alberga won the Royal Schools of Music scholarship for the West Indies, and two years later she found herself at the Royal Academy of Music studying piano and singing. She was one of three finalists in the Dudley International Piano Concerto Competition in 1974.  

But in the event, her childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist was impeded by circumstances beyond her control. 

She recalls: “I left the Academy and at the same time there was a political situation in Jamaica which meant that suddenly, the government stopped money going out of the country completely, so I just had to find work. I started working accompanying dance classes while still doing a few concerts.” 

Alberga joined the London Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1978, later becoming its musical director. And it was there, after initially being asked to improvise music for dance exercises, that she began to compose more extensively. 

“I feel that I’m now doing what I was meant to do,” she says of her compositional career. “And in some way, my only regret is that I haven’t discovered that earlier.” 

Although she has never had any formal training, Alberga reveals at the Royal Academy she did “sneak having a few composition lessons” with her keyboard harmony teacher, the late Richard Stoker, who encouraged her to write.  

Later, in 2001, she was awarded a NESTA Fellowship for composition, which enabled her to have two years of consultations with various teachers and fellow composers. One was Sir Harrison Birtwistle. “He didn’t really teach me!” she laughs. “But I had a lovely day with him. I went to his home, and he showed me his studio and just said: ‘well it looks as though you know what you’re doing’.” 

Her catalogue is broad – from opera (one being Letters of a Love Betrayed, premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2009) to chamber music, orchestral pieces including violin and trumpet concertos and a symphony, and vocal and choral works. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was commissioned by the Roald Dahl Foundation in 1994, while her choral work Arise, Athena! opened the Last Night of the Proms in 2015. In 2021 she was made an OBE for services to music. 

Liverpool audiences have been introduced to some of Alberga’s other pieces in concerts during the past 12 months – Tower, written in memory of David Angel (a friend and violinist in the London Mozart Players and Maggini Quartet), opened the A Child of Our Time concert last June, while Isata Kanneh-Mason performed Alberga’s 2007 Piano Quintet with members of the Orchestra at St George’s Hall Concert Room last May. And now the Piano Concerto receives its world premiere at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall this month. 

One of the earliest things Alberga did after receiving the commission was attend several of Beisembayev’s concerts to hear him play, and – in her words – “get a feel for how he expresses himself through music. 

“Obviously, I have to write what I want to write, and to express what I want to express,” she says. “But I like to think that there is a certain amount of collaboration with the artist as well, and their mode of expression.” 

There were also discussions with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra about instrumentation being used in the wider concert programme.  

“I get the ideas in my head,” she explains of her creative process. “For the piano concerto, it took me a little while to decide how many movements. I eventually decided how many I wanted, and then I decided what sort of atmosphere each movement was to create, whether fast or slow, or that sort of thing. Then usually at that stage I start working on the structure in my mind, and how it’s going to unfold. And then the very last thing is the pitches and how those work, and with that comes the timbre of which instruments are playing what. Sometimes I might jot something down if I get a rough idea of a line or a rhythm or something. But not much goes down until I make those decisions.” 

Sometimes it also takes a walk in the countryside around the North Herefordshire home Alberga shares with her husband, the violinist Thomas Bowes. The couple decamped to the country from London two decades ago, finding peace in a rural idyll where a stream runs melodically, and soothingly, past their sitting room window and where they founded the Arcadia Music Festival, which ran for 12 years. 

“If you hit a wall, it’s good to just go outside and breathe and look around,” she smiles. 

Was there a lot of walking involved in this? 

“No actually. Well, maybe there was in one movement,” she admits, “and I won’t say which it is, that took a bit longer to find itself.” 

Structurally, the concerto is comprised of four movements – the first, in its composer’s words, being “big and fast, with contrasts, so bits of slow material as well. It is followed by a scherzo second movement, a slow third, “and then another fast movement at the end with a recurring theme, so you could call it a rondo if you like.” 

Alberga adds: “Quite often I have an extra musical idea, some form of narrative or story idea, but there’s nothing like that in this. It’s completely abstract. I just work with certain pitches and lines; I haven’t deliberately interjected any particular cultural influence into it. I daresay people will hear things, they always like to. But it has no particular slant.” 

She is, she says, interested in audience reactionI’m always trying to communicate to people with what I’m writing. And if people are completely non-plussed and it just goes by, then I think I’ve failed really. I don’t know if it still applies, but there certainly used to be composers who seemed not to care. They just thought, this is my process, I’m going to write like this, and I don’t care if the audience gets it or not. And I just think – well, whether you like it or not, people are going to react to what they hear, and they are going to have some response to it. It’s language to me, which means it’s a form of communication, so I’d like to feel that I’ve communicated something.” 

Between commissions – including, she hopes, the chance to write more symphonies – Alberga communicates with the next generation through composition tutorials at her old alma mater, the Royal Academy. 

And, in a satisfying completion of the circle, she is also a member of the jury for the 2024 Leeds International Piano Competition 

Hear Alim Beisembayev perform the world premiere of Eleanor Alberga's Piano Concerto (25 April).

 

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Liverpool Philharmonic has updated its cookie policy. We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. This includes cookies from third party social media websites. Such third party cookies may track your use on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies. However, you can change your cookie settings at any time.