Former Birmingham Conservatoire student Rebeca Omordia’s thrilling artistry left Fred Olsen passengers with stars in their eyes on board cruise ship Braemar, writes Lesley Bellew.
Some of the best memories from a cruise holiday come from the unexpected – jaw-dropping scenery, vivid sunsets, meeting new friends or discovering special places.
On Braemar’s sailing to Norway, the 900-passenger cruise ship was buzzing with talk of concert pianist Rebeca Omordia. Her interpretation of Scarbo, by Ravel, was played with such emotional intensity that her audience had been star-struck.
Rebeca was booked to play alongside her mentor Julian Lloyd-Webber, but he had to pull out after suffering a neck injury.
Passengers were devastated to hear ‘the doyen of British cellists’ had been forced into early retirement just days before the ship set sail but they clearly felt for him during a frank Q & A session where he admitted he was still coming to terms with the decision to stop playing in public.
The 63-year-old younger brother of composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber told the audience: “It is strange not to be playing - but comforting to have it going on around me with my wife Jiaxin taking my place.
“I do not want to be a 7/8ths cellist. There is a risk if doctors operate - and I have a young family to consider.
“My hope is to do more in music education because it’s in such a mess in this country. Perhaps there’s a major job for me, it’s an area I am interested in going into.”
Braemar passengers saw for themselves the potential of his mentoring work through Rebeca. Julian described how, in 2009, he was judging the Delius competition at Birmingham Conservatoire and immediately saw ‘Rebeca was clearly the very best’.
He said: “Rebeca’s technique knows no bounds but, more importantly, she plays with a depth of insight and understanding which is all too rare.”
After the Delius competition, the two musicians kept in touch and by 2012 started work together on several collaborations including concerts at the Wigmore Hall, at Highgrove for the Prince’s Trust and live broadcasts for BBC Radio 3.
Passengers packed the Neptune Lounge to watch Shanghai-born Jiaxin Cheng stand in for her husband. Sailing along the fjords, as the world-class cellist’s her bow glided across the strings, playing two movements from Bach’s no 3 suite, was a special moment for the audience.
Jiaxin and Rebeca had not played together on stage before but immediately struck a musical conversation. Jiaxin captivated the audience with her powerful actions and her rendition of Julian’s Variations – the Southbank Show theme tune – had everyone tapping their toes.
But when Rebeca started to play her first solo piece the passengers were mesmerised by her emotional intensity. This young woman, who had sat quietly in the background as the support role, became one with the piano and was lost in the music, playing the most intricate chords by heart.
She executed Ravel’s dark and hallucinatory score from Gaspard de la Nuit with exceptional vigour, despite its recognised difficulty. As the music stopped there was a collective gasp. Rebeca had used every ounce of energy - and the audience knew they had witnessed an extraordinary performance.
Rebeca said she actually felt Braemar’s passengers’ warmth and knew they were with her.
She said: “Every concert is for the audience, not yourself. The moment you start playing you hear them, you know them, and you are able to take them with you and sometimes I think ‘Ha, now I have got them. They are mine’!”
Julian Lloyd-Webber plucked the young pianist from relative obscurity even though Rebeca had been playing the piano since the age of seven.
She was born in Bucharest to a Romanian mother and Nigerian father and moved to England after winning a scholarship. She said: “Julian is an amazing teacher - and there is a connection. Through him I have changed more than 50 per cent in the way I see life and the way I see music. I will always be grateful.
“I have learned that music is not all about practice but also about rethinking and reimagining.
“It is a friendship that has grown from a musical partnership. Julian is an icon, but he was open-minded when we work together.
“When I first started to work with him he would ask ‘what do you see?’ I now I see and hear different things. “Learning in a Communist country was much more about practising and so I have developed many new skills. I am so sorry he will no longer be able to play in public but he has the greatest skills as a teacher.”
Rebeca started to play the piano as a way to get out of going to the local school.
She laughs about her character as a child. She said: “I was the youngest daughter and always trouble.
I was naughty and my parents kept saying ‘you will have to be quiet when you go to school or you will be punished’.
“I used to watch my older sister having piano lessons and I told my parents, ‘I do not want to go to the local school. I want to go play the piano and go to music school’. Yes, really!
“They held off my school entry for a year and I practised enough to get in to the music school. It was something that made me sit still and focus!”
Rebeca’s raw talent and dedication meant she was always top of the class, winning national awards from the age of nine. She went on to the National Music University in Bucharest and in 2006 won a scholarship to study at Birmingham.
She now lives in London and like her father has moved country for the sake of her career. She said: “My dad came from Nigeria to train as doctor in Romania. He met my mother and stayed in Bucharest.
“Growing up in a mixed background was not always easy, but now I can see there’s a great advantage in being influenced by two different cultures.
“I developed an understanding of both worlds although it was only recently that I started to search for my own identity and the answer was not too hard to find.
“In Nigeria, they say you claim your father’s country. I claim both. Despite the differences of language and culture, both countries have one thing in common: Music.
“I like to play Romanian classical music, it has diverse sources of inspiration from the authentic folklore and cultures like Byzantine, Slav and Gypsy but I am also interested in African music.”
Rebeca, who will be 31 in September, said: “Nigerian classical music has also achieved international acclaim. The high rhythms are often based on a dance, a ritual or a story and they can be very complex.
“Composer Fred Onovwerosuoke has been helping me to interpret the music and my aim is to record some of this music.
“Last year I performed at the African and Afro American Music Festival in St Louis, USA and will record my debut CD for St Louis-based MSR Classics label in May 2015.”
It seems Rebeca is on the road to stardom and Fred. Olsen passengers will be able to say they saw her first on Braemar!