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Double Exposure Marries Careers

Music: Violinist Thomas Bowes plays in a duo, and wife Eleanor Alberga can have her piano and compose too.

October 18, 1997|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

British violinist Thomas Bowes was playing in a string quartet and conducting a London chamber orchestra, but he wanted out. What he had in mind was a new partnership--a violin-piano duo. Eleanor Alberga, his wife, had had a career as a pianist, but her life as a composer was taking off.

"It took us a little while to see the obvious," Bowes said in recent phone interview from London. "But once we did, we haven't looked back."

In 1995, the two formed Double Exposure, which plays Alberga's music, works by other contemporary composers and standard repertory, as it will Sunday on a Fullerton Friends of Music concert.

"One of the things we do is commission works as regularly as we can," Bowes said. "We're building up a fair-sized portfolio of pieces for us now."

One of these works is Graham Fitkin's "Bolt," which receives its U.S. premiere Sunday.

"It's not challenging; it's not microtonal," Bowes said. "It doesn't deal in dissonance a great deal. There's something wonderfully straightforward to his music. It reveals itself fairly immediately.

"With some contemporary pieces, when you're playing composers no one knows much about, you feel a little bit concerned. By the time it takes an audience to get used to the style, you're halfway through the piece. So you almost want to play it twice. With Graham, you don't have those worries at all. People respond immediately and wonderfully."

Even so, Fitkin remains reluctant to discuss his music.

"If you back Graham into a corner, and say, 'What's your music all about?' " Bowes said, "he'll strike that Stravinskian attitude and say, 'Music expresses nothing but itself.' On the other hand, he gives his work curious titles that beg explanation.

"I told him, 'Look, Graham, everybody is going to ask us, "Why is it called 'Bolt'?" We have to tell them something. You're not going to get away that easy.' "

So the British composer gave him this explanation: The work is made up of "pieces or slabs, if you like, being bolted together. There is a sort of energy within the piece, as if it's trying to release itself from that structure. So [it's] really about the tension of the structure and the energy that is constantly trying to break open the structure."

Bowes can talk to Fitkin so familiarly because he is an old friend of his wife's.

"They grew up as composers together," he said. Alberga was born in Jamaica in 1949 and moved to London in 1970 when she won both piano and vocal scholarships to the Royal Academy of Music. Although she advanced to become a finalist in England's National Piano Competition, her works for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre led to commissions for concert music, which, in turn, led her to devote herself more and more to composing.

Bowes, who was born in 1960, was a member of the Maggini String Quartet and directed the London Chamber Players. He also has been a guest concertmaster with a number of well-known conductors, including Michael Tilson Thomas and Colin Davis. He and Alberga married in 1992.

"No-Man's-Land Lullaby" is one of two pieces she has written for them.

"Eleanor said she had always intended to write a quite lighthearted piece for us," Bowes said. "But when it actually came to sitting down to do it, she was taken over by the spirit of quite another piece."

That spirit, he said, came on her during a recent trip to Austria, where she became "aware of slightly strange vibes and of dreadful thoughts of the things that happened there 50 years ago."

*

When she returned to England, she began reading about the first world war. "There were harrowing descriptions of people left in this place--'No-Man's-Land,' the land between the trenches--sometimes for days on end without being able to be reached or helped in any way. She was taken and moved by it."

At the same time, she couldn't get a certain piece of 19th century music out of her mind. "So she decided to go with it," he said. "That piece reveals itself steadily as the music goes on. Most people do recognize it. I won't give the game away since she doesn't when she talks about it. But it's a very moving piece."

In contrast, Alberga's "Jamaican Medley," also on the Sunday program, was composed to honor that nation's independence from Britain in 1962. "It's a medley of Jamaican folk tunes put together," Bowes said. "It's very sunny, upbeat and great fun."

The duo has played before in the Southland and has fond memories of California.

"A year or so ago, we had a little spare time and drove up Highway 101," Bowes said. "We knew which direction we were going because we largely kept the ocean on our left. It was fabulous. We both became infatuated with the West Coast after that drive, the scale of it. Britain has a wonderful coastline. But nothing feels so big and overwhelming."

* Double Exposure (violinist Thomas Bowes and pianist Eleanor Alberga) will play works by Schumann, Graham Fitkin, Alberga, Ysaye, Szymanowski and Brahms-Joachim on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center of Sunny Hills High School, 1801 Warburton Way, Fullerton. The concert, sponsored by the Fullerton Friends of Music, is free. (714) 525-9504.

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