'I remember arriving in Deira at night, and seeing the tower rise into the sky from so far away, lights flickering up and down, sparkling very fast – it had a dramatic effect on me'
Composer Bruno Vlahek on how he found inspiration from the Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is a musical building – loaded with the mathematical ingenuity and symbolic sleights of a symphonic score. That, anyway, is the view of Bruno Vlahek, who after glimpsing the magnificent metallic peak for the first time, flew home and sat down to write a piece of music inspired by the architectural ambition and brazen virtuosity of the world’s tallest building.
That was late last year, and now the Croatian pianist and composer is preparing to perform his Khalifa Etude in the UAE for the first time – fittingly at the Dubai Opera, the world-class performance venue which viewed from the right angle literally stands in the shadows of Burj Khalifa. The symbolism of Wednesday's regional premiere is not lost on the 32-year-old musical talent.
“I felt really inspired the first time I saw the Burj Khalifa,” he says.
“I remember arriving in Deira at night, and seeing the tower rise into the sky from so far away, lights flickering up and down, sparkling very fast – it had a dramatic effect on me, and I put this effect into my music.”
The inspiration created a fitting final coda to Vlahek’s Towers Etudes suite, a series of short piano works inspired by the world’s most iconic buildings. Organised chronologically, the Khalifa Etude appears after consecutive chapters dedicated to the mythical Tower of Babel, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, New York’s Empire State Building and Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower – the latter three completed in 1889, 1931 and 1994 respectively – an arc which traces the dynamic flow of ideas and influence from West to East.
“The five towers I chose were the five I felt somehow connected to,” adds Vlahek. “I’ve visited many places, but these were the places that left an impression on me. In Dubai, I felt that this building expressed all the new possibilities of a city which is being born and built every day. There’s a lot of magic about the building which is very visionary – I just came back from Dubai and wrote this final piece.”
Click to listen to Khalifa Etude:
The work’s second chapter incorporates a touch of “French charm”, the third makes nods to Gershwin and America’s fabled “Jazz Age”, while the fourth reflects the duality of China’s traditions and rapid modernisation. In the same way, the Khalifa Etude offers an audio interpretation of Burj Khalifa’s time, place and startling physique. The climate is invoked with the use of Arabic scales, while the ordered structure of “little intermezzo steps” reflects the building’s artfully staggered design. Meanwhile, the dazzling light effects which so enchanted Vlahek come to life in melodic flourishes.
“The piece evokes the spirit of Arabic music,” he adds. “I was inspired by this tower that defies the climate – rising from the desert, defying the sandstorms – it’s very virtuosic music because I find this tower very virtuosic. With all those beautiful lights in the evening, and this magnificent architecture – there’s something very musical about it. It’s tall, but it’s thin – it’s not a big fat tower, it’s an elegant tower, so the music also has this very fast, virtuosic line, which is fragmented by little stones and the sand. It is this visual effect that evokes my inner self – somebody paints, somebody else writes a book – but I express myself by writing music.”
The Tower Etudes were commissioned for contestants to perform at the 24th International Competition Young Virtuoso, hosted in Zagreb in February, with each section steadily increasing in difficulty – climaxing in the Burj Khalifa-inspired final chapter. “It’s the hardest part because it’s the tallest building,” adds Vlahek. “Many young pianists across the world are now playing this piece, so I’m very touched,” he says.
As well as holding regional relevance, the work will offer Vlahek a solo showcase at Wednesday’s concert, a duet engagement alongside his musical partner Dubravka Vukalovic. Performing under the title D&B Duo, the pair have built a formidable reputation for sharing the keys of the same piano, and were named laureates of the Monaco’s first International Competition for Piano-Four Hands in 2013.
Most remarkably, they are also a married couple. However, when they began performing together 12 years ago – while both homesick Croatian students at Switzerland’s historic Lausanne Conservatory – the relationship was strictly musical. “First, it was just music,” says Vukalovic, 33. “And from the music came everything else – we started as music students, then became colleagues, and now we’re a married couple.”
In Lausanne, the pair studied under Dag Achatz, the storied Swedish virtuoso who famously transcribed and recorded a piano version of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. It was this work which Vlahek proposed for the duo’s first concert – which made an instant impression and quickly led to invitations to perform internationally. “It was all his fault,” jokes Vukalovic. After spells spent studying and working between Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Russia, the pair settled in Spain, where they are both professors at Madrid’s Katarina Gurska conservatory. They married in 2015.
“The music helps us to connect and to understand each other – privately and professionally,” says Vlahek. “We are both very passionate about piano, so to have two pianos or two people at one piano, it gives more possibilities to express yourself – four hands can do more than two.”
Fittingly, the Bernstein work will form the centrepiece of the pair’s first duo recording. Entitled A Night at the Theatre and set for release later this year, the album will also include pieces by Manuel de Falla, Darius Milhaud and Theatre Suite, a piece written by Alfi Kabiljo especially for the duo.
A stage favourite, this piece was cheekily penned by the Croatian composer to enforce a theatrical choreography behind the keys – the players forced to cross limbs and jump around as the play. Audiences may be pleased to read that the Theatre Suite will also be on the programme in Dubai, an eclectic platter focusing on 20th century works from France (Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, Emmanuel Chabrier) and Spain (Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados) as well as touches of Argentinian tango (Astor Piazzolla) and a taste of the duo’s native land, via works by both Dora Pejacevic and a second piece by Vlahek himself, Variations on a Croatian Folk Theme.
And all these will be performed on just a single piano – while the pair might find it easier to do so on two instruments, in Dubai they have committed to performing the whole programme “four hands” style – a pointed nod to the intimate, inclusive concept of the Music in the Studio programme.
“The idea of this series is to bring the audience closer to the performer and the performer closer to the audience,” added Vukalovic. “It’s a small intimate space, and playing with four hands was the practice during the romantic period in musical history, playing in salons. It’s harder for us, of course, but it’s very special.”
Bruno Vlahek and Dubravka Vukalovic will perform at Dubai Opera on June 20 at 8pm. Tickets cost from Dh150 at www.dubaiopera.com