The multi-million selling classical crossover artist Maksim Mrvica is set to perform in the Czech capital for the first time next month. Ahead of that concert, the Croatian pianist, who looks like more like a rock star than most rock stars, stopped by at Radio Prague’s studios for a conversation that took in everything from his experiences as a teenager during the Yugoslav conflict to “Maksim-mania” in the Far East.
“I would probably say just the colour of the tone which the instrument produces. I always sat at that piano and tried to pretend that I’m a pianist, which obviously didn’t make any musical sense.
“I was very drawn to the instrument instantly, and afterwards when I joined music school I obviously fell in love with classical music.”
Do you think that it benefited you that, unlike most kids, you went to the piano? It wasn’t forced on you by your parents.
“Probably, because that was my love and that was my idea. I pushed my parents to enrol me in music school – in most cases it’s the other way round.
“Especially because of the fact that neither of my parents, my brothers, my friends ever had any contact with classical music. They never listened to classical music.
“And I come from a very small city of 30,000 where classical music is not that popular.
“So of course it was a shock for my parents: Why do I have such an interest in classical music? Where did I get it, where did I see it?
“Maybe on television, I don’t know. But as soon as I started I knew that I was going to be a pianist.”
Do you remember the first concert you experienced as a member of the audience?
“No, but I remember my first concert. It was when I was nine – after the first year.
“It was a concert with other kids from the school and I remember the piece that I played. It was called Indian War Games or something [laughs] – very basic.”
When you were in your mid-teens the conflict in Yugoslavia broke out. I was wondering, you were at that age when kids are going through a lot anyway – how did what happened in your country affect you psychologically?
“It was quite difficult. I was 15 when the war broke out. It was very dangerous.
“And then to see your parents – they were so scared for our lives and then you see that it’s something really serious. We were hiding in basements for most of the time.
“But eventually – because it was for four years – you have to keep on living, you have to do something. And I think the piano was the escape which I found, an oasis.
“That’s why I practice for hours and hours – I would forget what’s happening around me.”
What were some of the worst things you experienced during those four years-plus?
“[Sighs] I don’t know… The first time when we heard the sirens, when the war began in my hometown, we knew what’s going on, obviously. In the distance we could hear the cannons and the bombs.
“We went to the basement and we didn’t go out for seven days. We didn’t see the sun, we couldn’t move.
“The most petrifying thing is not knowing. We didn’t know what was happening – and we had 1,000 grenades a day. We thought that the whole city is destroyed and completely gone.
The most petrifying thing is not knowing. We had 1,000 grenades a day. We thought that the whole city is destroyed and completely gone.
“A couple of grenades fell in front of my house and destroyed a section of my house. We thought we were dying, because obviously it was so close. And, yeah… a lot of things [laughs].”
You studied in Zagreb and also in Budapest and Paris. Then in the early 2000s you started working with Mel Bush, a very experienced music manager and promoter. In what way did he shape your career and future direction?
“Oh yeah, in a big way [laughs]. My life turned upside down when I met Mel Bush and when I signed an exclusive contract with my record company EMI in London.
“Till then I was a student in Paris and my life was very basic and simple. Financially it was very difficult.
“I met him and a couple of months later and we were releasing an album.
“We had a world premiere where all the directors of EMI from all around the world came to London to see me. The first gold disc came very soon.
“It changed completely. It changed the genre of the music that I played. Obviously I was a classical musician before and this is something very different. So yeah, to this day I’m very fortunate to have this possibility.”
Did he encourage you to go the classical crossover route, or was it something you were already considering?
“I always tried to present classical music in a different way. Because I’m very aware that there is no interest in classical music among young people, among my friends.
“I think it’s a lot to do with presentation, because it’s very serious. The concerts are in black and white.
“I think that’s something that gives an image to younger people that this is something from the past and it should stay there. But it’s not true.
“I dressed differently. Before I had blue hair, green hair, stuff like that. And tattoos, obviously.
“I think it was much easier for them [young people] to relate to somebody who was presenting music and looking like them.
“The result was like 30 or 40 percent of the audience were young, young people who would never go to shows.”
Have you ever had any kind of negative reaction to the route you have taken? For example from former classmates from the conservatory of professors?
“Not from my professors, which is quite surprising. Because two of my teachers were Russians, very strict Russians.
“I would expect that they would mind what I do, but they recognise it as promotion of classical music.
“Obviously this can be a means to get to a goal and the goal is to interest young people in classical music – not necessarily just crossover.
“There are always a couple of people, especially in classical music, who will mind what I do.
“But I always say I do it for the people who like it. Because in every genre of music you will always have people who like your music and who dislike it.
“If you concentrate on the ones who dislike it, you’re not going anywhere.”
This can be a means to get to a goal and the goal is to interest young people in classical music – not necessarily just crossover.
I saw a video of yours from a tour of Asia and the shows were extremely spectacular. Do you only do concerts with all the screens and the big show, or do you also do different ‘tame’ shows on different tours?
“Now, at the end of this month, my first concert is in Moscow, I’m doing a classical tour actually.
“I have a classical recital, which makes me so happy because my love stays classical music. I have separate careers, classical music and crossover.
“Classical music is a constant in my life. I can’t leave it and I can’t live without it.
“So I’m very happy to have this classical tour, which is obviously played in classical concert halls. It’s just me on stage and nothing else.
“Then sometimes I go and play with a philharmonic orchestra, again classical. Then I go with my band and it’s a completely different story – it’s a pop concert.”
Is the preparation different? Are you in a different place mentally when you have a pop show or a classical recital? Are you psyching yourself up more for the pop show?
“Definitely. It’s completely two different types of shows and different atmospheres.
“I come to my shows in China and I play stadiums with five or six thousand people and everyone is screaming. It’s crazy. It’s a pop concert, so my energy is different, my way of performing is different.
Is China a particularly important country for you? I was reading that 30 million…
“Forty million [laughs].”
Forty million people are studying piano.
“It’s becoming an extremely popular instrument, because they didn’t have classical music for a long period. For them it’s like a rediscovery and especially piano, being the most popular instrument.
“For the economy China is a very interesting market for a lot of artists from the world. They are all going to China because it’s a big market with a lot of potential.
“I also work in Japan. Japan is one of my biggest markets. And South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore.”
How are the audiences in these countries, because they’re really crazy about you but they’re also known for their politeness? How does it work in terms of how they approach you?
“Well, Japan is the country which has an audience that is extremely polite. They don’t react the way they do in Korea, where they scream and are very enthusiastic.
“In Japan they are not. Mostly what I get is standing ovations, which is amazing.
“I do signing sessions after shows and where in China and Korea I need an army of bodyguards...”
They want to touch you?
“Yeah, yeah [laughs]. But in Japan they stand in a line. They’re very excited but…”
I come to my shows in China and I play stadiums with five or six thousand people and everyone is screaming. It’s crazy. It’s a pop concert.
In a different way.
Do they give you gifts?
“Oh yes. The Japanese give me loads of gifts. Normally I have another suitcase for the gifts I get on tour. They are souvenirs or they paint me – I get stuff like that from the fans.”
You’re playing in Prague for the first time next month. What can the Prague audience expect?
“Well, it’s a bit different from the classical tour I’m doing at the moment.
“Because this is my first presentation of my music and myself here in Prague I’ve made a concert in two parts.
“The first part is pure classical, where I play Liszt and Chopin pieces.
“But the second is a selection of my most popular crossover pieces which I play all around the world. Now finally it’s a chance to present it to the Czech audience.”
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