Even in today’s increasingly globalised, genre-melding world of music, many fans remain remarkably territorial – none more so than the stereotypically snobby classical connoisseurs.
Yet different genres more in common that you might think, and a series of concerts, hosted as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics, aims to explore and expose the relationship between classical and pop music, with the help of a man who has enjoyed success in both fields.
Stephan Moccio is best known as a pop writer-for-hire, responsible for helping to create global smashes including The Weeknd’s Grammy-winning hit, Earned It, and Miley Cyrus’s United States number one, Wrecking Ball.
But this melodic invention is built on Moccio’s formal classical background – which has found expression in a string of instrumental solo albums, which have given him chart success in his native Canada.
This material will form the core of Moccio’s first performance in the emirates, an intimate solo piano recital at Al Ain’s Al Jahili Fort tonight.
His two worlds will collide during a second performance, at Emirates Palace on Wednesday. Backed by a 40-piece orchestra, the LGT Young Soloists, Moccio will again perform his instrumental works during the first half of the evening, this time as a concerto-style soloist.
After the interval, guest vocalists Fernando Varela and Stephanie Carcache will join Moccio on stage to help bring to life many of his best-known works, including Earned It, Celine Dion’s A New Day Has Come, Josh Groban’s My Heart Was Home Again and I Believe, the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics’ theme originally performed by Nikki Yanofsky.
One thing that both shows will have in common is storytelling, with Moccio keen to share his musical inspiration in spoken introductions designed to shed light on the interwoven musical worlds he inhabits.
“There’s always a great story behind a hit song, but you can only tell the story after the song has become world famous – I’m not just your typical pianist who goes up there and remains cold and doesn’t acknowledge his public,” says Moccio.
“What people love is to hear the genesis. If you take a song like Wrecking Ball, people often don’t realise it is a classical piece of music, that’s how it started off, until you hear it stripped down on a piano, how the melodies originated.”
This is not the first time Moccio mentions Wrecking Ball. Given the song’s worldwide sales of more than three million – and the role it played in reinventing Cyrus as a post-Disney, grown-up star – Moccio is unsurprisingly proud of his doubtless lucrative songwriting credit, which he shares with five other writers.
“I’m not saying everyone loves my music, but they either love it or hate it, and that’s when you create great art – when you’re polarising,” says the 44-year-old.
“You can’t just have things that are just in the middle, otherwise it stays in the middle.”
While Wrecking Ball emerged from a think tank of hotshot composers, Moccio says the best results normally come when he works with an artist directly – such as his work with fellow Canadian Abel Tesfaye, better known as man-of-the-moment The Weeknd. Moccio describes him as a friend, after working on three songs from the R&B singer’s 2014 album, Beauty Behind the Madness.
“The Weeknd was interesting – he’d come in with some ideas and I would rework them, and we’d rearrange the song together,” he says. “Or I’ll just put chords down, and we’ll craft melodies around the progression. There’s not one way of doing it.”
Moccio might enjoy enviable access to the stars – but how does one get there in the first place and become a writer-for-hire?
His introduction to music came early. Growing up in Niagara Falls, he began playing piano at the age of three, and acknowledges his parents’ investment of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” into his music education. At 18 he approached Canadian composer and music executive David Foster for help and support, and by 22 he had signed a nine-year deal as a session player, composer and producer at Sony/ATV, leading to early work his Dion, Groban and Sarah Brightman.
“I always wanted to be a songwriter because I had a passion,” says Moccio. “I studied at a [classical] conservatory as a young boy, but I also loved pop music – and I knew that one day I would write melodies which would move the world.”
Moccio claims to have helped sell more than 18 million records, yet outside of industry circles and his native Canada – where he was a judge on 2012’s single season of Canada’s Got Talent – Moccio is unrecognisable to most music fans. Does this ever annoy him?
“I don’t seek fame, the only reason I might seek celebrity is to have creative control over my art,” he says. “Some of my best work still sits on a shelf, because there’s so many politics in the record industry now. When you write a song, the label and management control it. Sometimes you can write a song, the artist will sing it, and you may not like that version, yet you can’t do much about it. But I’ve also had many artists – like Celine, like Miley – record a song and blow me away, making me the happiest songwriter on earth.”
• Stephan Moccio performs solo at Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain, at 8pm tonight, and at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, on Wednesday, 8pm. Tickets start at Dh80 (students Dh30) from