Inside a recital hall in downtown Montreal Saturday, a young man from Algeria is set to take the stage for a debut concert of classical piano. While the repertoire of Brahms and Schumann may cover familiar ground, the performance itself marks the culmination of an uncommon journey.
Mehdi Ghazi's only piano as a boy was a keyboard drawn on a sheet of paper. A civil war between Algerian government forces and Islamic rebels had shut the local music conservatory. Amid the tension and curfews, there was little room for the joys of music.
"Among the fundamentalists, all music was evil, it came from the devil," Mr. Ghazi recalls. Western classical music didn't have much of a hold in his North African nation. "My environment didn't really encourage a career in classical piano. Sometimes it was frustrating."
It took his discovery by acclaimed Quebec pianist Alain Lefèvre, and the intervention of Canada's ambassador to Algeria, to set Mr. Ghazi's life on an unexpected course. A fortuitous encounter in 2005 would take the self-taught teenager with raw talent to Montreal, where he is poised to begin a career as one of the few classical pianists from the Arab world.
"I hear a lot of great pianists with talent, but what was fascinating was to hear a young person from a Muslim country playing classical music," said Mr. Lefèvre, an international concert pianist. "Music is a wonderful way to promote peace. Maybe one day his name, and his talent, could do more to bring about change than politics can."
The unlikely journey to Canada began in Mr. Ghazi's hometown of Oran in northwestern Algeria. Mr. Lefèvre was on concert tour and heard Mr. Ghazi perform during a master class he routinely offers local musicians.
Mr. Ghazi was only 16, and hadn't even played piano until the age of 10. He was practising in his family's modest apartment on a creaky upright with missing keys that his father, a university professor, had bought after borrowing the equivalent of $300.
"The talent was there. The potential was there," Mr. Lefèvre recalled. "I thought, if this guy doesn't have the same chance that someone in France, Germany, Belgium or elsewhere does, it would be a sin."
Mr. Lefèvre contacted Canadian ambassador Robert Peck, who arranged to fly Mr. Ghazi to the Algerian capital two days later; Mr. Lefèvre was delivering a concert and invited Mr. Ghazi to perform. And before a packed hall, the teen brought the house to its feet.
"To see a young, normal guy from Algeria get up on stage and play Schubert, it was a kind of revolution," Mr. Lefèvre recalled. "And the greatest revolutions can start with a little seed."
The concert in Algiers that day set the wheels in motion to bring Mr. Ghazi to study in Quebec. Mr. Peck helped raise funds. Though enrollment was closed, the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal agreed to re-open its admissions after hearing Mr. Ghazi play.
"I just felt he had something to offer the world," said Mr. Peck, who was ambassador to Algeria from 2004 to 2007 and has just finished serving as chief of protocol for Canada. "Where he had come from to become a musician was compelling. He was from the Arab world, where there are so many stereotypes. Here was a kid from a part of the world which didn't have a Western classical-music tradition, and I saw how well he could perform without training.
"When you saw how hard he worked, you simply couldn't be indifferent."
Now in his third year at the music conservatory, Mr. Ghazi's gifts and prodigious work ethic have led him to the top of his class. The 21-year-old studies with noted pianist André Laplante and has earned scholarships for his high grades. In 2008, he won first prize in his first-ever solo competition, and last month he performed for Governor-General David Johnston at Rideau Hall.
Serious, smart and ambitious - he was poised to begin medical school before deciding to study the piano - Mr. Ghazi hopes for an international career. But his dream is to one day open a music school in his homeland. "I hope people get to know classical music more. But I also want to let people make their own choices - not accept the decisions that society or their environment or their parents make," he said.
For Mr. Lefèvre, today's performance at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, which marks Mr. Ghazi's professional debut, is itself an accomplishment. "To see Mehdi do this recital will be a big emotional moment for me," Mr. Lefèvre said. "It's not only a lesson for his country but a lesson for all of us. Because classical music doesn't belong to anyone," he said. "It belongs to the world."