Within the auditorium of Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace, buried deep beneath the 7-star luxury hotel’s many layers of opulence — past the $500-an-hour Maybach rental fleet, a gold-dispensing ATM, and swarms of oversized Swarovski crystal chandeliers — a crowd is poised to cheer on a composer responsible for some of the world’s biggest pop records of the past 20 years wraps up a track from one of his solo piano albums. The artist, sitting ramrod-straight at his piano, flips a page and welcomes a young American singer to join him on stage to perform one of his far more popular creations.
The confluence represents an aggressive pivot for Abu Dhabi Classics, a concert series renewed in 2014 with the aim of establishing the United Arab Emirates capital as a musical epicenter. Many of the world’s top classical musicians, orchestras, and conductors have passed through the series, which runs annually from October to May with a fresh theme each season. Here, for the first time, Classics is dipping its toe into pop music waters. The audience, accustomed to settling into their seats for the subdued artistry of French piano prodigies and mandolin-backed Syrian poets, appears pleased and engaged when the composer tells the dramatic story of how he conceived of the track, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”
Stephan Moccio, the Grammy- and Oscar-nominated composer and pianist occupying the bench, has enjoyed the maximum amount of success the music industry allows its members without ambushing them with the burden of stifling celebrity. And he’s spent the past three days in Abu Dhabi regaling crowds with the songs and stories he’s developed along the way: How he composed the theme for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, which ranks as the second most famous piece of music in his native Canada’s history (trailing only its national anthem); How he pieced together “Earned It” for a young Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, whom the world would eventually know as The Weeknd.
Or, the request from a man named “Bob” to perform a private concert for his family — the Redford family, as in Robert; the time he told Celine Dion, as a precocious 18-year-old, that he’d one day write her a song, and then resurrected her career with a 26-week #1 hit ten years later. John Legend and Fergie also get name-dropped, as do Miley Cyrus and Beyonce in the “Wrecking Ball” origin story.
Those experiences have culminated in this week’s trip to the Middle East, his first, and he’s not shy about singing the area’s praises. “I feel connected to this environment. I feel connected to the sky, to this earth, to the desert,” he told an intimate gathering of local dignitaries two nights earlier, during a private recital within the walls of a 19th century open-aired desert fortress rich in Abu Dhabi history. “I like the deafening sounds of silence of the desert.” This isn’t lip service, as Moccio’s Instagram feed is quickly filling up with photos and videos of him frolicking in the rolling sand dunes.