Arsha Kaviani is refreshingly lacking in the gauche manner and nervous tics one associates with gifted, young musicians who have spent their childhood alone in dank, underground practice rooms. In fact, the 18-year-old concert pianist is remarkably mature for his age (and keen to stress that there were no such rooms).
"I've played at festivals before but never in the UAE, so it's going to be my debut," he booms in a rumbling baritone. "I'm not nervous in the least." Though of Iranian descent, Kaviani was born and brought up in Dubai. He will perform at the ninth Al Ain Classics Festival gala concert on Saturday. This year's festival, which runs from tomorrow to April 30, includes a 200th anniversary performance of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture by the Warsaw Philharmonic, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro sung in Arabic, and an original adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, also in Arabic.
"It's a really exciting prospect playing among such artists as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Warsaw Philharmonic," Kaviani says. "It's quite a prestigious thing." He started playing the piano when he was six, after he was brought along to one of his brother's lessons. "As a child, one of the elementary things you're taught is how to play an instrument." He wasn't gripped immediately, though. "I didn't take it too seriously at first, but then, slowly, slowly, I began to take an interest, and slowly, slowly, I started learning pieces by myself, away from the teacher."
Soon, the Kavianis were hunting high and low for a teacher who could take his talent to the next level - no mean feat in a city with little in the way of teaching resources. "Dubai was a relatively new city, and it still had a lot of room for growth before it could accommodate a classical musician's needs," Kaviani says. When they did eventually find someone, "she suggested that there was nothing more for me in Dubai and I should move on to a place that had more resources". Kaviani was soon awarded a scholarship at the prestigious Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, England, where he completed his studies. He is now a student at the Royal Northern College of Music, also in Manchester.
Kaviani credits his parents' love of classical music as the spark for his interest. "With classical music, not all of it is easy listening. You can't really appreciate it on the first listen. Some of the more obscure works have to grow on you. I remember, when I was as young as five or six, being tucked into bed with Mozart's piano concertos." He counts the early Beethoven sonatas, followed by his piano concertos, and finally the romantic works of Rachmaninoff and Chopin as being particularly formative. However, he is the only member of his family who has turned his love of music into a career. His brother left the band he played with to work in finance. "He's very musically capable, actually," Kaviani says. "He's very talented."
The move to the UK was life changing. "Being surrounded by like-minded people was wonderful. In Dubai, some of my friends didn't even know I played the piano until I started taking it really seriously at the age of 14. I was quite a sociable person - your average teenager. And then I had this little side to me that played the piano. Some of them knew, but it was more like, 'Oh, and he plays the piano really well, by the way. But what film do you want to watch?'"
Far from being embarrassed of his talent, Kaviani says, "it was actually quite a nice, funny thing to say at a party: 'I have an interest in Rachmaninoff.'" Although he soon made a new group of friends at Chetham's, things were somewhat different. "There, it was quite the opposite, I was known for playing the piano." Kaviani's programme, which he chose himself, will include a Chopin ballade, a sonata by the Russian composer Meitner, a Bach chorale, and the premiere of one of his own compositions. "I like to think my composing is on a par with my piano playing. I've kept most of my compositional work hushed until recently, though, because I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I wouldn't like to give out something until I feel it's ready. I feel it's ready at the moment."
His compositional style takes inspiration from several great musicians. "I love the contrapuntal nature of Bach, and the freedom of Feinberg; I love the ecstasy and harmonies of Scriabin and the harmonies of Beethoven. And then I have a little touch of myself - things you can do on the piano nowadays which weren't possible a century ago, when many of the great composers were writing." When he is not performing, Kaviani loves nothing better than to tackle works by some of the more obscure and - he believes - neglected Russian composers, including Samuil Feinberg and Nikolai Medtner.
"Their music is quite complex. It's not particularly easy listening for the audience, so I think it's unfair to programme a lot of it. Feinberg wrote about 12 sonatas, which were wonderful pieces of music, but there wasn't too much interest in his music at the time. A lot of Feinberg connoisseurs are coming out now, though. Meitner has also written some beautiful works. I learnt one of his piano concertos when I was at Chetham's, and I would say it is up there with the great piano concertos, but it has had very little exposure.
"Rachmaninoff famously said to Medtner, 'I'll tell you what I said in Moscow: you're the greatest composer of all time.' And I would probably have to agree with him on that." Kaviani is, however, performing some Medtner at the festival. "It is one of his easier, more accessible pieces. I think it's one of the most gorgeous pieces ever written." Downtime for the musician consists of anything but music. "I don't like to think of music as my work, but when I'm doing it, I get so involved with it that when I'm not doing it, I would prefer to have nothing to do with it. It's sort of all or nothing for me." He still loves to socialise. "I'll go out with friends, watch a movie or read a book. I like George Orwell. He was very ahead of his time and very to the point."
Neither is Kaviani restricted to classical music. "I'm very into music in general. I like everything from Tupac to Coldplay to Oasis - you name it." For the next six months, Kaviani will be busy at college and is preparing to perform at the Royal Northern College of Music's upcoming Gold Medal Weekend. In the long term, though, he would like to set up a facility in the UAE that teaches music at performance level.
"The standard offered at the moment is sort of 'let's do the scales and exams and get it over with'. And I think people in the Middle East have a lot of talent in so many fields. I don't see why that can't be applied to classical music." He is not complacent when it comes to success, though. "I don't want to say I've made it too soon because that would make life very boring. I'm only 18 and there will always be many pianists I will aspire to."
He does, however, dream of performing in the world's major concert halls. "Of course, I would love to play at Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall or the Royal Albert Hall one day. But then, the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter used to take his piano around in a caravan to small villages. If he found a beautiful landscape or village, he would notify the villagers and hold a concert in the local church, just to commemorate the beauty of the surrounding."
Luckily for us, the Kaviani caravan will be rolling into town any day soon. Arsha Kaviani will perform Saturday at 8.00pm at the Al Ain Municipality Theatre. For tickets go to www.timeouttickets.com.