The metamorphosis of the classicist

Why improvisation and audience participation in the middle of a concert is standard practice for Dubai-born concert pianist, Arsha Kaviani 

When concert pianist Arsha Kaviani strikes his first notes at this week’s World Classical Music Series in The One & Only Royal Mirage, he will be permitted a moment of quiet reflection. It will be a homecoming - Kaviani is now based in the UK - but also a chance to take stock at the classical music scene in the city, as well as his own rapid rise. “When I was growing up, even getting hold of sheet music in Dubai was difficult,” he says. “Now I get people in Dubai e-mailing me asking for advice about how to take their music to the next level.”

Kaviani, 24, is impatient for more development. “I always feel very welcome in Dubai, it’s where my first roots in classical music were sown, and where I realised I wanted to dedicate my life to it. There are a lot of very passionate people who are desperately trying to bring more classical music to the city. But the problem is that most concert halls, symphony orchestras and opera houses around the world are not profit making institutions. So it’s very difficult to sell this sense of an integrated classical music ‘scene’ to donors or investors. That’s the next step.”

Somebody can sing out a melody, or even come to the piano and play a few notes, and then I’ll improvise on their starting point

Arsha Kaviani

Still, with news that the Dubai Opera House is finally set to happen, Kaviani might be headlining a show in a dedicated space sooner than he thinks. Though it’s not surprising that he should be so eager for change. It’s been a meteoric rise from being the first Dubai-born musician to attend the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England to playing with the renowned Zurich Tonhalle earlier this year. The programme saw him taking on Richard Strauss' rarely-heard Burleske with one of the world’s most sought after and visionary conductors, Kristjan Järvi.

It summed up Kaviani’s career to date - much of his growing reputation is thanks to a commitment to shying away from stuffy classical music ‘standards’. It’s an ethos that is also shot through the concert programme on Thursday.

“It’s not just about being a concert pianist, it’s about being a musician who happens to play the piano who can also, in the tradition of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov, compose and improvise,” he says. “So I’ll do Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but then also two Metger pieces, because he’s so neglected as a composer. Probably because he’s definitely not easy to play!”

arsha Kaviani
Kaviani's debut with Tonhalle Orchester in Zürich, Switzerland

In the second half of the programme, Kaviani is presenting his own compositions, before taking on an ambitious transcription of Rachmaninov and then improvising on themes from the audience. If it sounds like a world away from the predictable classical music concert, then that’s the point.

“Somebody can sing out a melody, or even come to the piano and play a few notes, and then I’ll improvise on their starting point,” he explains. “It’s all about taking away the staleness of a concert programme. I want the people of Dubai to feel we’ve created something which exists only in that moment”.

And in doing so, there’s the sense that Kaviani is inspiring a whole new generation of Dubai musicians. “I hope so,” he says. “I work really hard in the UK, where I’m based, to bring back my work to the Middle East. There’s a really nice sense of symmetry every time I go back.”

Arsha Kaviani plays at theThe One & Only Royal Mirage, Dubai, on 19 December