Nina Kotova, the critically acclaimed Russian cellist, is excited about being in Abu Dhabi.

“It's the first time I have come to this part of the world. I'm so excited. There aren't many new places for me to go and perform but this is one of them,'' she says.

Nina performed with Sir James Galway (flute) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) in a trio recital as part of the 6th Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival, which ended on April 2.

Speaking softly, with a slight accent and her eyes shining with quiet intensity, it is hard to believe that this talented artiste was once a fashion model — a far cry from what her passion is.

A third-generation musician (her father Ivan Kotov is regarded as a virtuoso double bassist), it is not surprising that she would carry on the family tradition.

At six she studied cello at the Moscow Conservatory and gave her first performance as a soloist with an orchestra at 11.

A few years later she made her debut with the Prague Radio Orchestra by winning the Prague International Competition.

Then, on the advice of one of her professors, her mother sent Nina out of Russia so she could pursue music more freely.

Everything, however, got sidetracked when she was in the United States. Her scholarship money ran out and she found herself at an open audition for a modelling agency.

Her beauty was spotted instantly and she soon found herself adorning magazine covers and walking the ramp.

Answering the call

But her yearning to play was too strong. Armed with a second-hand cello and a dream, Nina left modelling to pursue music as a career.

Her talent was recognised and she signed a recording contract with Phillips Classics and released her debut album in 1999 to critical acclaim.

She has never looked back since. Nina now plays not only with various orchestras but also with artistes such as Lang Lang and Sting.

A multi-talented artiste, she also writes music. Her compositions range from solos, duets or trios to even orchestra concerto pieces — all with cello, of course.

“I get inspired by the beauty of nature, which is incredible here, even the sand — a painter would just fall in love with it. I've never been anywhere that's developing so quickly. It's absolutely breathtaking,'' Nina said.

Having heard a lot about Abu Dhabi, she couldn't wait to tour as much of the city as she could.

“We went to the Shaikh Zayed Mosque. It was the first thing I noticed when coming from the airport.

It's unbelievable, incredible that buildings such as this are being built. Structures like this have been created thousands of years ago and will remain standing for centuries to come,'' she said.

While Nina is no stranger to music festivals — she and her husband founded the Festivale Del Sole in California — the 6th Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival proved to be something vastly different from what she was expecting.

“It's very unusual for me to be in a place where the culture is so different but that's offset by the incredible energy and the positive impact that a performance has on an audience,'' she said.

“This is very important because it's bringing cultures together. It's one of the few things that would improve the general atmosphere in the world — politically speaking,'' she said.

While she has performed with Sir James Galway, her performance in the trio recital was the first with Thibaudet — something she admitted she was a bit nervous about.

“I had played with Sir James when he performed [at the Festivale Del Sole] in Napa Valley, California.

“He's a legend and I learnt so much from playing with him. It's not just playing with the flute — but also about the reaction time.

There's only a fraction of a second in reaction times between a wind instrument and a string instrument. So when the three of us play, the reaction is different for each of us and that requires a little adjustment,'' she said.

“People like that have a very strong personality and their approach to music is very different from yours but the person has to make it work.

"When two people who have never played before sit down with their instruments and both have their own concepts about how the piece should be played, it's like a business meeting or a meeting of great politicians,'' she added.

But Nina need not have worried. The trio recital was a resounding success.

The three artistes performed solo, duet and trio pieces with a smooth fluidity that captured the imagination of the audience.

For those who have yet to hear classical music, the world-renowned cellist provided this advice: “People sometimes think of classical music as something to be scared of — like a ghost in the night.

"But it's not. It's a wonderfully enriching experience. You just have to give it a try.''