x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Dubai-born pianist tackles Rachmaninoff masterpiece

Arsha Kaviani will perform the piece that drove a virtuoso pianist to madness Doha.

Arsha Kaviani will perform in Doha on Saturday. Courtesy Arsha Kaviani
Arsha Kaviani will perform in Doha on Saturday. Courtesy Arsha Kaviani

There is a scene in the Oscar-winning Shine, the impressive 1996 film based on the life of the troubled virtuoso concert pianist David Helfgott, where the protagonist enters a concerto competition. To show just how good he is, he chooses to play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, widely recognised as one of the most difficult and challenging pieces of music for the instrument. Practising for it literally sends Helfgott mad.

On Saturday, the Dubai-born pianist Arsha Kaviani will also play the "Rach 3" - with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra in Doha. At just 21, it's quite an undertaking for him. I expect to see some sign of nerves when I meet him in Manchester, where he's in his last year of studies at the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music. I teasingly remind him of Shine, and of the famous words of the American pianist Gary Graffman, who made a classic recording of the concerto in the 1960s: he wished he had learnt it as a student, when he was "still too young to know fear".

But Kaviani is still a student - and supremely confident. As he breezes into the cafe in which we've agreed to meet, dressed in a leather jacket and looking every inch the proto rock star, it's clear he's not suffering from nerves.

"Sure, it's not an easy piece," he smiles. "But growing up in the Emirates, where there was no cultural tradition of classical music, I didn't know that I was supposed to fear it. My first experience with Rachmaninoff was when I was about 14, and it struck me immediately that this was a beautiful piece of music. The technical difficulty was just a small obstacle in the way of me trying to achieve the sound. I had no one telling me that I couldn't do it."

Rightly, Kaviani has been widely heralded as one of Dubai's foremost home-grown classical music talents. When The National first caught up with him more than two years ago, he was a fresh-faced, wide-eyed teenager who dreamt of playing in the world's major concert halls and was about to make his debut at the Al Ain Classics. He's now played with symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles and at festivals across the globe. Much has changed - and not just for Kaviani. The RNCM seeks musicians from more than 50 different countries and traditionally not many have come from the Emirates - in fact, Kaviani is the only Emirati student currently enrolled. But there's the sense that, via performance and teaching programmes undertaken by RNCM alumni in the Emirates, as well as our burgeoning classical music scene, his story might not be so unique in the future.

"When I left Dubai to study here, it was impossible to go and see a symphony orchestra," he says. "In Manchester alone there are two full-time, professional ones [The Halle and the BBC Philharmonic]. But after Qatar on [Saturday], I'm playing in Dubai, and I don't know if that would have happened when I was growing up. There weren't the right pianos, halls or even an audience, really. But that has changed. There are still things that could be done to support local talent but in a strange way I hope someone like me isn't so newsworthy in the future."

Kaviani is so charismatic - both as a person and a musician - he will always be a big draw. When he graduates next year he simply hopes to build on his growing reputation, but there are also wider aims. His own composition is coming along nicely - the programme in Dubai next week is listed somewhat grandly as "works by Kaviani, Brahms and Liszt" - and as a fan of everyone from Jeff Buckley to Jay-Z, he also has numerous songs in the works, too.

"I listen to all sorts of things, and I don't think I'm alone in that," he says. "Look, what I'm trying to do is to be a musician, not necessarily a concert pianist, or a composer exclusively. The tour I did over the summer, I played my own compositions and those by the likes of Rachmaninoff and Liszt. But then in the second half I would get the audience to make up themes on the piano and improvise on them. The most interesting stuff came from those who didn't actually play the instrument."

And if that sounds a bit like jazz, then that's fine with Kaviani.

"In the past two years, I've achieved so many of my dreams," he says. "But there's always more. I always want to challenge myself."

Arsha Kaviani plays with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera House, Katara Cultural Village Building 16, Doha, Qatar on Saturday. Visit www.qatarphilharmonicorchestra.org for more details). He also plays at Centrepoint Theatre, Ductac, Mall Of The Emirates, Dubai, on November 24. Visit www.ductac.org for more details.