Maksim Mrvica knew he wanted to play the piano when, aged just eight, he caught a glimpse of the instrument at his best friend Alexander’s house. That was in 1984 and although 22 years later he is one of the most famous pianists in the world, the journey hasn’t always been easy.
Born in Sibenik, a small, but beautiful medieval town on Croatia’s Adriatic Coast, the odds seemed stacked against Maksim achieveing his dream.
His mother Slavica and father Karmel knew nothing about classical music (even now they still prefer to listen to pop music on the radio). But although they were confused by their son’s new passion, they were supportive and lessons were duly arranged.
It wasn’t long before it became obvious to Maksim’s teachers that he had a rare talent and the boy was enrolled in Sibenik’s state music school. It was there that Maksim began to harbour dreams of being a concert pianist and working hard to make those dreams a reality (although he admits now that he didn’t always do quite as much practise as he was supposed to).
He was 15 when war broke out in Croatia and life became almost unbearable for the Mrvica family. Bombs fell almost constantly on Sibenik: Maksim remembers “There were more than 1000 grenades a day. At one point there were seven whole days when we stayed in the basement and didn’t see the sun. “But you got used to it: you had to go on living.”
For Maksim, living meant playing the piano. He would meet his teacher Marija Sekso in the basement of Sibenik’s music school and forget the war, losing himself in the music for hours at a time.
As well as grenades, there was the constant threat of being attacked by Serbian snipers – any time spent outside was a danger.
For three years the whole family slept each night on the concrete floor of the shelter in their basement. They occasionally were able to escape to a house on one of the islands off Sibenik’s coast, but although he was away from the bombs, being away from his piano was tortuous for Maksim and, despite the dangers; he always welcomed the family’s return to the city.
Eventually a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Maksim entered his first competition in 1993, practising feverishly to reach the high standards he knew were expected of him. War still raged in Sibenik, but there was peace in Zagreb where the competition was held. The 18 year old Maksim had already charmed the judge and audience just by turning up, but one he played the applause was purely for the music. The judge stopped the competition after Maksim’s performance, immediately announcing him as the winner.
“They said I ought to win just for coming from Sibenik.” He laughs. “They said ‘We know it is hell. Where did you practise?’ But after I played and won there were hundreds of people shouting for me and not because they felt sorry for me.” The pianist says it was one of the best experiences of his life and it seems that however successful he has gone on to be, the joy of that first win remains vivid in his mind.
Maksim went on to study in Zagreb with Vladimir Krpan, one of country’s most revered music professors, then to the Ferenc Liszt conservatoire in Budapest and finally to Paris before returning to Croatia to record his first album Gestures in 2000. He had modest hopes for the record, but it surpassed all expectations, becoming one of the fastest selling albums ever released in Croatia and winning four Porin awards (the country’s equivalent of a Classical Brit).
In 2001 Maksim met Tonci Huljic, a musician and composer who not only wrote some original pieces for the young pianist (and continues to do so), but introduced him to music impresario Mel Bush.
Bush had been looking for a classical pianist for some time, having masterminded the success of all-girl string quartet Bond he was convinced that there was huge potential for a pianist to break into the classical/pop crossover market, but hadn’t been able to find the right person. On meeting Maksim he was immediately impressed by his charisma and signed him on the spot after hearing him play just one piece.
Maksim’s first crossover album for EMI Classical, The Piano Player, was a huge success in 2003. It went Gold in Malaysia, China and Indonesia and Platinum in Taiwan, Singapore and his home country Croatai and Double Platinum in Hong Kong. It contained what has become, to many, his signature piece: a particularly energetic version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee. He is particularly proud that there is now an annual competition named after him in which amateur pianists play the piece.
Variations I&II in 2004 won him yet more fans and a platinum disc for sales in Taiwan. On a tour of South East Asia fans received him like a rock star as he played his unique crossover music accompanied by strobe lights and video screens and dates in Japan where he played in a more purely classical style accompanied by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra were greeted just as rapturously.
Earlier in 2006 Maksim pushed the boundaries of crossover with his third album, A New World, toured again in Japan and Asia and was delighted to play a outdoor ‘homecoming’ show in Zagreb.
The trajectory of his fame rose even steeper with the release of Elektric and a tour of Asia, where he performed both crossover concerts with his band and classical concerts with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. He then returns to Asia for a solo piano concert tour at the end of April 2007.
Maksim is married to childhood sweetheart Ana and the couple have a daughter named LeeLoo (after Milla Jojovovich’s character in The Fifth Element). They divide their time between Sibenik and London.