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The Star
, donated by Fong Pei Vern

I consider that pop,” the 28-year-old Croatian laughed off during a phone interview recently from Hong Kong where he was doing some promotions for his new classical crossover album The Piano Player.

Not exactly your average crossover pianist is Mrvica but then again, not many have really been publicised the way he has. But with the release of The Piano Player, could Mrvica be accused of going down the same route as those pop-styled easy-listening fare.

Not if you see what he’s actually recorded in his fledgling career so far.

But his Richard Ashcroft crossed with Brett Anderson attire in the video to his rendition of Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee does make you wonder, does the image detract from the importance of the music?

“It’s a different way, certainly. Normally (for me), in my classical concerts I would do something different with lighting systems and I would get like 70% younger audiences (read under 30 years) who would normally never come to classical concerts.

“And I must say it was a fantastic feeling and now I know that a lot of young people listen to, for example, a Rachmaninov Paganini variation or The Bumble Bee of Rimsky Korsakov.”

The Piano Player isn’t the first album released by the London-based pianist. In 2001, Mrvica had released in his home country, Gestures (Geste), an anthology of Croatian piano music.

That early album featured modern music alongside some avant garde and romantic pieces.

“At the beginning when I recorded the CD, I knew it was not the music a lot of people were listening to. It’s classical avant-garde music, Croatian piano music, so it’s very difficult to sell and present this album.

“But we did it in a very different way, a big promotion of the CD in my country where we did this huge laser show. The hall was filled with smoke and the media was very interested in this project because it was like the first multi-media project (of that size) in Croatia.”

With a laugh, he added: “But when I started to play, it all stopped. I didn’t want to blow my audience.”

“It was a very big success and had very good sales and my CD won four Porin awards (Croatian Grammys). It was classical album of the year, and it was really strange because (I thought) nobody listens to avant-garde.”

Gestures became one of the fastest-selling classical recordings to be released in Croatia, and Mrvica was even invited to open the Porin award ceremony – an honour not usually granted to a classical artiste – where he caused a sensation with his performance of The Dance of the Baroness.

With The Piano Player, Mrvica admitted that it is a pure crossover album “although we have one piece which is like a classical piece”. (That would most likely be Dance of the Baroness, which has been included in the album).

“The rest are fusions of classical with techno or electro-pop. We also have five pieces from Croatian composer Tonji Hulcic for this album.”

Hulcic’s major claim to fame these days, other than being a musician, author and poet, is the fact that he wrote several tracks for crossover string quartet Bond.

It was the composer who put Mrvica in touch with music industry impresario Mel Bush, who had for some time been looking for an exciting new pianist.

“Hulcic just called me in Croatia and asked me if I was interested in this project.”

As for the project itself, Mrvica added: “I would write a huge list of the pieces I have or would like to have in my repertoire, like capital pieces of piano literature, and then my producers would choose pieces which are suitable for arranging.”

In particular, The Flight of the Bumble Bee, was chosen as the lead single from the album, complete with a cutting edge video you don’t normally see in classical music promotion.

“The track is very modern and very fast, like techno rhythm,” he claimed. “So the video was modern, too, a little bit edgy.”

“We had a fantastic director – his name is Sven Harding and we didn’t want to give a lot of details (to him), because we trusted him. So we just told him what atmosphere we liked.”

Recording The Piano Player was quite a different experience for Mrvica as well, especially compared to recording Gestures.

“This was much more relaxed, and I had two or three producers and sound engineers and we really had a lot of fun. My only worry was that the biggest difference between classical and crossover music is that in classical music you are allowed to play very freely – you have rubato and ritardando. The thing you can’t do in crossover music is rubato, you know like whether you play slower or faster. My biggest worry was just to play in tempo with a metronome.”

Passionate belief in attracting young audiences to classical music and communicating with them in new and exciting ways are some of the main reasons for his rising success, so one could say that Mrvica had every right to try something different.

It was this belief that sustained him when he was putting up his own concert posters in small Croatian towns and when grenades started exploding during the Croatian war.

His musical training had been rigorous. Born in 1975 in Sibenik, a town on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, then still part of Yugoslavia, he was a late starter by even average pianists standards, beginning lessons only at the age of nine. Phenomenally he gave his first public performance that same year and just three years later he had already performed Haydn’s C major piano concerto with an orchestra.

When war broke out in 1990, both Mrvica and then professor Marija Sekso were determined he should continue his musical studies, although the music school had to be closed.

“The circumstances just helped me to be more determined,” he reminisced. “Because we didn’t have a school for two years, it was very difficult, everything stopped. But I just decided to go on because you can’t stop living and the piano was the only thing that I was concentrating on.

“My professor and I would go to the music school and open it and practise in the basement because we were preparing for the national piano competition (in 1993). The competition still continued because it was in Zagreb, which was capital (of Croatia) and at that point did not have so much war. My city was under heavy bombardment but Zagreb was fine.”

Mrvica won that competition and, after the war was officially over, continued his studies at the music academy in Zagreb for five years before spending a year at the Ferenc Liszt Conservatoire in Budapest, Hungary.

He won first prize in the Nicolai Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 1999 and moved to Paris in 2000, going on to win first prize in the Pontoise Piano Competition in Paris in 2001.

By the time he returned to Croatia the same year, he found himself in the middle of intense media interest. There were frequent television appearances and interviews, and soon he was recording Gestures.

The spectacular launch recital, in the 2000-seat Lisinski Hall in Zagreb, included a laser show, dry ice and a video wall. Half of the audience was under 30.

Mrvica recently moved from Paris to London although he does spend his summers back in his hometown, and just recently in July he also had a recital in Sibenik, in the middle of a very old fort (Fort Nikola) in the middle of the sea.

“You can reach the fort just with old boats and we have galleys to bring people there.”

The recital was held on a terrace with a huge video wall and lighting system.

But what are his hopes for this new crossover project? Judging by the reactions so far, he’s in for a successful trip.

“We did very well in Japan. I think like in three days we sold 10,000 copies.

“We wanted to release it in Europe before summer, but I’m not there so there was no point in releasing it if I’m not there to promote it.”

He’s certainly busy with The Piano Player but Mrvica doesn’t feel he’s leaving his classical roots behind by any means as he still has more classical repertoire he would love to perform.

“The Prokofiev Piano Concerto (for instance) is a masterpiece and a work of art.”

Many pianists both living and dead have been his influences, including the likes of Vladimir Horowitz and Nicolai Rubinstein (both dead), Argentine Martha Argerich and his fellow countryman, the maverick pianist Ivo Pogorelich.

Currently he’s also listening to another new crossover pianist by the name of Simon Mulligan.

“His is quite a different music from mine because he is more chill out and slow.”

Then there’s the thought of composition.

“Maybe not entirely a whole album, but I have already started to compose. I wrote a variation of Paganini’s theme but it couldn’t go on this album.”

Mrvica is of course aware that there are those who would disagree with his approach to classical music.

“I always say the music is the most important thing and as for the audience who come to my concerts – I hope they’re coming because of the music.”

And the future?

“My third CD will probably be a purely classical CD.”

But we may have to wait about a year before that.

In the meantime, of his current album Mrvica said: “Enjoy the music. It is fantastic, because I’m doing something that I can really enjoy and it’s art. I always say I’m a happy person because I’m living classical music.”