Alexei Galea Discusses Recent Work with EUFSC and Konstantin Ishkhanov
Alexei Galea is an accomplished and versatile musician, equally at home both performing and conducting. His diverse and prolific career has taken him from Malta to the UK, Germany and Russia, and has included concert performances as both an instrumentalist (piano and organ) and conductor across the globe. He is now based in Malta and serves as Music Director for the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC).
I caught up with Alexei to find out more about his musical journey and his recent projects.
Alexei, can start by telling me just briefly about your your route into music
Yes, well my route into music started because my father was a tenor and my mother used to play the piano. When I was a little boy we used to live in the UK so I used to go to the Barbican often with them. That was my first introduction to 'serious music' - Beethoven, Sibelius, Bach and Vivaldi etc. I later attended the Purcell school in London studying piano, and I have a degree in piano from Moscow. I also studied conducting for two years in Germany and played the organ as well in Oxford. I'm doing this very seriously now so increasingly the organ is my main focus.
How did you find the leap from piano to organ?
Well I think you can do a lot worse than approaching the organ after having studied the piano thoroughly first. Although they are two completely different instruments and the touch of the organ is very different, it is still a keyboard so to be able to master the organ you have to of course have a very good finger technique coupled with the coordination of using your feet. There are certain other aspects of the organ - both technical and musical - that make it very different as well, but yes I think being able to play the piano can only be a plus. Of course, you have to really understand the instrument, really feel the instrument in order to avoid playing the organ as if it were a piano.
Aside from your career as a soloist and conductor, you also direct the music programme at the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC). How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the activities of the MCC this year?
We had a very important - and what I think would have been a very impressive - project planned with our friends at the European Foundation for Support of Culture (EUFSC): the 'Georgian Culture days in Malta' which should have happened in March of this year. They were postponed until October and now they're going to be postponed until October 2021. One of the effects of this was that as Music Director I suddenly therefore had quite a lot of free time on my hands. I decided to use that time to create another project, which is to make recordings of the organ works of J.S. Bach at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Paceville. I met with Konstantin Ishkhanov, the President of the EUFSC, to discuss the project and he was very enthusiastic about the idea so we started planning it straight away. I've decided to focus on the works of J.S. Bach for this, as if there is one composer who is related to a particular instrument and who has a special significance for an instrument, it would of course be Bach and the organ. Organ repertoire without Bach would be very poor indeed, and in some ways one might say that an organist who doesn't play Bach is not really an organist. The organ repertoire is more strict in that sense because whereas, for example, a pianist who doesn't play Liszt cannot be said not to be a pianist because there is so much other repertoire. Bach really is very essential to the organ repertoire and so to play Bach is not only a great pleasure but also historically very important.
Have you started the recordings yet?
Yes we've already recorded two trio sonatas: one in D minor and one in E minor. We've also recorded the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (the famous one), the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major and some other smaller works. And we'll continue to record every six weeks practically.
"Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity." — Charles Marie Widor.
Considering the large amount of repertoire available, what has guided the process of narrowing down the list of pieces that you've chosen to record?
Well I actually ordered all of Bach's works a couple of years - some 11 volumes of organ music. A lot of it is music which is intimately linked to a liturgical function. That is, you might have a tune composed by Martin Luther or another Protestant, and Bach would write the melodies around it and produce for example chorales to be used in church. But then there are of course the major works which today can be called concert pieces, though of course in Bach's day the word 'concert' was not used as we use it today. What I mean is that because in the 19th century you had people building organs in halls, these works can be played like the preludes and fugues - for example Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor - which is a piece of music which isn't liturgical and which one can listen to with great pleasure. Not that you can't do the same with his other works as of course as they are fantastic to listen to also.
I understand that you performed overseas with other Maltese artists in 2019, can you tell us more about this?
Yes there were the 'Days of Maltese Music in Russia', organised by the EUFSC. We had one concert in Kislovodsk - the first concert of the series in fact on 25 May - with the young Maltese pianist, Bernice Sammut Attard, and the Safonov Academic Symphony Orchestra. We played the Grieg Piano Concerto and a great work by a great Danish composer, Carl Nielsen's Symphony No.2.
How did the concert go?
Oh very well, Bernice received a very warm reception from the audience. Prior to this she had represented Malta in the Eurovision Young Musicians 2018 which is why she was chosen for this concert. She played very well and we're very glad she agreed to take part.
Were there other concerts as part of this series?
Yes indeed - I also conducted another concert in Barnaul later that year in October. I'm speaking mainly of this concert as that was one I was especially involved in. But yes, the Foundation performed another nine concerts throughout the year until mid-December across Russian cities including Barnaul, Petrozavodsk, Sochi, Ryazan, Astrakhan, Omsk, Chelyabinsk and Saratov. There was also a series of concerts that took place in Kazakhstan, entitled 'Days of Maltese Music in Kazakhstan', a similar concept but a smaller number of performances. I conducted one concert on 31 May, this time not with Bernice Sammut Attard but with another fantastic young soloist, the violinist, Zhibek Musurgaliyeva. She played the Khachaturian Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and we also performed Beethoven's first symphony. Bernice performed the Grieg piano concerto in this concert series as well, but this time with the Eurasian Symphony Orchestra.
Do you prefer playing or conducting, or are they two sides of the same coin for you?
I think that in my case, the repertoire pushes you to do whatever you want to do. I love Wagner and Mahler...Bruckner as well in fact, and I'm very much in love with symphonic music generally. So if I get the chance to conduct this music which I love so much then I'm happy. But equally I love the organ too, especially being able to play Bach - the feeling and sound when practising alone in a hall on a large organ...it's an incredible experience. And actually that's a consolation during these times, and not a small consolation, that at least during the Coronavirus I still get to play Bach! So it's not all bad.
Aside from the things that we've discussed already. Alexia, there are any other projects that you'd like to mention?
Yes, in fact next year as part of these recordings we are making - with a view to hopefully being able to broadcast them on television, perhaps once a month or so - I'm planning on recording more works by Bach using the organ in Altenburg in East Germany, as well as one in Holland, St Petersburg and in another German church.
Will these be purely audio recordings or video as well?
These will all be video recordings. Also I've commissioned a new work for organ from Maltese composer, Alex Vella Gregory, but that will be recorded on the Capella organ in St Petersburg. Additionally I am planning on playing a selection of sonatas by another Maltese composer, Azzopardi.
Konstantin Ishkhanov, President of the European Foundation for Support of Culture.
You've mentioned the EUFSC - how many years have you been working with the Foundation now?
I think I was actually one of the first people here in Malta to collaborate with the Foundation and Konstantin Ishkhanov. I was already organising masterclasses and so forth, and so when Konstantin came onto the scene and started to invest properly in the arts and culture here we started working on projects in Malta together. It's been a few years now since Konstantin and the Foundation have been operating in Malta, and I think we've been doing a lot of good work together: 'Turkish Cultural Days', the tours of Georgian Sinfonietta Tbilisi State Chamber Orchestra, Filarmonica Nissena Siciliana, St. Petersburg State Capella Symphony Orchestra, Karelia Symphonic Orchestra and many many more.If it wasn't for Konstantin and the Foundation a lot of Maltese talent would be hidden because in Malta there are limitations partly due to the fact that we are a small island, and partly because we are less practised in promoting high culture in our society. So yes, the Foundation is doing excellent work in relation to culture, which we should appreciate in Malta.
Interview by James Cummings, copied with kind permission from the Malta Independent.
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