Acclaimed pianist composes life story before students

Charitable concert held at Academy of the Sacred Heart

By: Erin McClary | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 6, 2011

 Acclaimed pianist and composer Marina Arsenijevic plays “America the Beautiful” during a concert and presentation for Academy of the Sacred Heart’s Leaders of Conscience speaker series Match 29. The Academy of the Sacred Heart Upper School choir accompanies her for the ensemble.

Acclaimed pianist and composer Marina Arsenijevic plays “America the Beautiful” during a concert and presentation for Academy of the Sacred Heart’s Leaders of Conscience speaker series Match 29. The Academy of the Sacred Heart Upper School choir accompanies her for the ensemble.

Photo by Mary Lou Cochran, provided by Academy of the Sacred Heart

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Whether it’s through Chopin, Freddie Mercury or her own compositions, Marina Arsenijevic knows how to use the piano as her weapon.

It’s won her peace, success, and most importantly, freedom.

Before all that, however, it had to win over her parents, who had a different career path in mind for their only daughter. Choosing the route Arsenijevic did, however, ended up saving her life and the lives of her parents, she said.

Thus began her presentation and concert before Academy of the Sacred Heart students March 29 through the school’s Leaders of Conscience speaker series. The performance and narrative of her life served as a preview to a charitable concert for the public to be held at Academy of the Sacred Heart April 14. All proceeds from the concert benefit the school’s After School Learning Center, an academic tutoring and enrichment program for underserved students in Pontiac and neighboring communities.

Born in Belgrade, in what was once Yugoslavia, to a famous soccer player and a government official, Arsenijevic, 41, had a somewhat privileged lifestyle. She was introduced to the instrument that helped shape her life at age 4, during a ballet class.

At the age of 6, her parents bought her a piano. At the age of 9, she played a concert in front of 2,000 people.

“At the time, Yugoslavia was a very prosperous country,” she told the audience, explaining that it was almost considered a communist nation. “Medical care, education and even apartments were free.”

Arsenijevic told students her father wanted her to be an athlete and her mother wanted her to be a ballerina, and that convincing them the piano was not just a phase took quite a bit of effort.

They thought their daughter would grow out if it, she said.

“I never did. … I’m still obsessed.”

At 15, she was accepted into college two years early following a concert where she performed Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” inspired by “The Cat Concerto” as it appeared in an episode of the cartoon “Tom and Jerry.” She played the reel for students March 29 before launching into her own version.

The Serbia bombing and onset of the Kosovo War in the ’90s opened a new chapter for her, she told students.

“In the early 1990s, overnight, neighbors started killing each other over religion and ethnicity,” she said, describing the situation as the most serious violence in Europe since World War II. “When you find yourself in this atmosphere, then you start to have a different perspective in life. You start asking questions — Why? What can I do?

“The only weapon I had was my music.”

Public officials asked her to play the piano in public venues during this time to give civilians a sense of peace. She spoke to reporters and conducted interviews and began performing in shopping malls and plazas.

“I refused to leave during the bombing because I wanted to be able to spread this unity.”

It was also during this time she composed her first piece, titled “Kosovo,” blending Christian and Muslim melodies to showcase their commonalities. She wrote it overnight, she said, and when she played it in concert, both she and the audience sobbed.

“It was this composition that upset (government officials), and I had to flee the country to avoid arrest,” said Arsenijevic.

The very next morning, she left for the United States, where a refuge had been arranged. She said the country invited her with open arms.

“Here in America, I found my life, I found my family and I found my way of expression,” she told students.

Arsenijevic has been lauded for bringing down the house at venues like Carnegie Hall and in a concert where former first lady Laura Bush was present. Now, the Bloomfield Hills resident is touring the country promoting her Emmy-nominated PBS program, “Marina at West Point: Unity Through Diversity,” a full-length concert video featuring classical favorites such as “Rhapsody in Blue,” rock favorites like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and patriotic melodies like “America the Beautiful.”

Sister Bridget Bearss, head of school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, described Arsenijevic as someone who’s not only made a difference, but who’s also succeeded by following her dreams.

“We’re … celebrating a woman who’s made a difference. She has brought light to the world and connected people of difference,” said Bearss. “The gifts that we have in freedom and faith in our own country and at Academy of the Sacred Heart are those that connect us to every continent of the world.”

Bearss invited Arsenijevic to the school for the speaking series and concert after speaking with a parent who knew her well.

“Twenty years ago, she began a journey,” Bearss said of Arsenijevic. “Just two years ago, she became a citizen of the United States of America.” In that time, she continued, Arsenijevic has been dedicated to spreading “the message of the difference freedom makes.”

Tickets to the April 14 concert are $35 for general admission, $50 for reserved seating in the school’s main chapel, or $100 for patrons choosing to attend a private reception and afterglow. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.ashmi.org/leaders or calling (248) 646-8900, ext. 170. Academy of the Sacred Heart is located at 1250 Kensington Road in Bloomfield Hills.