Toby Deller

Artist of the month: Rebeca Omordia

9:07, 3rd May 2019

Toby Deller speaks to the pianist and founder of the African Concert Series

‘I’ve always been of the idea that everybody has something to say, and when I go on stage I say what I believe. Of course, it’s for the audience to receive it – that’s why in a recital some people find different pieces closer to their own understanding than others. You always try to reach everyone in the audience: that’s the main focus of an artist.’

It is not only ready-made audiences that Rebeca Omordia is trying to reach. Her Romanian education, culminating in studies at the National Music University in Bucharest, gave her a technical and musical grounding in classical piano. But, as she wrote in the April 2018 issue of Classical Music, her Nigerian paternal heritage eventually opened up an interest in the art music of that country. That, in turn, has led to her African Concert Series, a monthly programme of African classical music that she is directing in 2019 at the October Gallery in London at the behest of the cultural organisation the Institute of Art and Music, AMI5.

The third recital in the series, featuring Omordia and Leon Bosch playing South African repertoire for double bass and piano, is on 2 May. But we met shortly after her launch concert in which she presented pieces by the likes of the west African composers Ayo Bankole and Fred Onovwerosuoke from her album Ekele.

‘We were surprised by the audience and the attendance and the feedback we received afterwards,’ she says. ‘The people that came to the concert were not a regular audience for classical concerts but at the same time the aim of the series is to bring African classical music not only to a Western audience but also to expose classical music to an audience who are not usually concertgoers.’

Omordia explains that the idea for the series originated as a response to a 2014 article by Max Hole, then head of Universal Music Group International, in which he urged classical music to seek a wider audience. ‘I wrote him an email saying that the best way to build an audience is to bring classical music first to an African audience.’ The ensuing plans for a Southbank Centre concert based on Omordia’s research and ideas ended up shelved, however, when Julian Lloyd Webber, one of its key participants, had to withdraw because of his career-ending injury.

You always try to reach everyone in the audience: that’s the main focus of an artist

The two had struck up a musical partnership after she arrived on an Erasmus scholarship to study for a masters at Birmingham Conservatoire. ‘It was a big culture shock,’ she says of the move. ‘I grew up in Communist Romania, and even though Communism ended in the 1990s, it took society many years to change. So, going to Birmingham, I had to change completely my way of approaching people and having a normal conversation. But at the same time, one of the main reasons I stayed is because I felt accepted: I never had a problem in terms of race and being seen as different, just because I look like myself. I also had family in the UK from my Nigerian side; this was even the main reason for choosing the UK rather than other countries for the scholarship.’

The catalyst for the collaboration with Lloyd Webber was the 2009 Delius Prize that she entered while at Birmingham. ‘When I saw the poster for the competition, I had no idea who Delius was. But there was prize money so I said: that’s a good idea! I checked the music, which sounded quite interesting, and went for it.’ Lloyd Webber was the adjudicator that year, and having awarded her first prize approached her with the idea of performing together.

‘He said if I was willing and he needed a pianist, I should play with him. I didn’t really believe him, but we kept in touch. 2012 was the 150th anniversary of Delius’s birth. [Lloyd Webber] got in touch to say we should do a BBC broadcast of Delius, and we did that and that year we started working together. We had many concerts; it was a regular collaboration.’

She has since struck up partnerships with various other musicians, not least cellist Jiaxin Lloyd Webber, and has just finished a recording of British double bass music with Leon Bosch that will be released soon. She has just returned from a concert tour in Nigeria and also maintains strong links with Romania, where she will be performing in her home town of Craiova later this month. Indeed, it is in Bucharest that she will be submitting her PhD thesis, even if it is on a subject closer to her current home.

‘It’s on the piano music of John Ireland. This is the British music project, it started before the African music project – it is what brought me together with Julian. He introduced me to the music of John Ireland and John Ireland’s Cello Sonata which I’ve played I think 50 times with six cellists, including Raphael Wallfisch, and have recorded as well with Joseph Spooner. The paper itself is analysing the music from a performing point of view. So it’s quite personal, something that’s never been written before, even in the UK.’




On performing

I’ve always been, I think – I’ve been told – quite a strong personality! I always believe that once you develop your own ideas about performing, you have to really believe in them to take them out and perform in public because if you don’t believe in them you won’t convince the audience that this is how a piece is.

On playing with others

It’s usually said that pianists are individualists and self-centred, but now I love playing with people. It’s true, you use a completely different side of your personality when playing alone and when playing with people. But I love both being on my own and with people. You learn a lot as well, as musicians – you have to be very flexible. Playing a lot of chamber music also helps your playing as a soloist with orchestra because you relate differently to them. Of course, you’re in a completely different position: in chamber music you have to compromise more.

On building a career

I’ve always been very good at planning. When I left Romania as a graduate I was already performing a lot there. I had played with most Romanian orchestras so I had an active concert life and I kept that even when I came to the UK and I used to travel back to Romania to perform quite a lot. When I came to the UK it was about building a platform for performing. It was quite difficult of course because I didn’t win the Tchaikovsky competition – I didn’t even consider it. Working with Julian really helped my career and also helped to open the way I see the music industry now in the 21st century: it’s not just about practising at home and then somebody will listen to you and give you concerts. It’s also about doing a lot of agent work on your own and marketing, discovering, building and strategising.

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