Global Star Pianist, Composer Marina Arsenijevic Shines On Women’s Equality Day

Hers is a rhapsody in power.

Award-winning concert pianist and composer Marina Arsenijevic has spent a lifetime creating music and performances around the globe that offer healing and respite in times of conflict and recovery.

Perhaps there is no better time than now as the country and world recover from the pandemic to celebrate with Arsenijevic, a global musical pioneer in equity, inclusion and diversity in music and entertainment, as she headlines the virtual Women’s Equality Day Concert August 26 benefiting Take The Lead.  

“The important message of women’s equality is something I have to celebrate,” says Arsenijevic, Emmy-nominated composer who will perform an original composition for the event with violinist, Sonia Lee of the Toronto Symphony.

Performing and creating music influenced by Franz List, Frederic Chopin, George Gershwin, Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Elton John and more, Arsenijevic says, “As a pianist and composer, it is about emotions. Emotions can collide with how to control situations in business.”

Emotionally and economically, the post-pandemic reality for many women in the U.S. and the world is grim. Forced out of the workforce into retirement or as a fallout from childcare issues, 1.8 million fewer women are in the U.S. labor force than before the pandemic, according to NPR.

Purchase tickets to Women’s Equality Day Concert here

One in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers versus one in five men, McKinsey reports. There is a $64.5 billion impact in terms of lost wages and economic activity for mothers leaving labor force, according to the Center for American Progress.

The economic upheaval is felt emotionally and impacts mental health. Women are more frequently reporting stress and other mental health issues as a result of COVID, according to research in Psychiatric Times.

New research from professors at George Washington University shows that burnout is real and harmful. “In terms of physical health, burned out individuals are 79% more likely to develop coronary heart disease than others. The psychological impacts of burnout are also well-documented. Burnout is related to depression and negative psychological health.”

Now is the time to put women at the center of the pandemic recovery and this Women’s Equality Day concert is focused on that mission. Arsenijevic’s concert performance that is a crossover of classical styles and modern ballads is the perfect nexus to soothe, reinvigorate and renew.

In her upcoming book, Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics and How Women Will Lead for (Everyone’s) Good, author Gloria Feldt, Take The Lead co-founder and president, writes, “Marina Arsenijevic became the arhcetype of the intentional woman. Her response to the pandemic was to reimagine her career, She became so productive it was as if her creativity was on steroids.”

Arsenijevic’s response to the pandemic is a continuation of a lifetime of offering options for unity and community amid difference through her music.

Growing up in Belgrade, Serbia, Arsenijevic says her father was a professional soccer player and her mother was a lawyer. ”Nobody in my family was musically inclined. My mother had a great voice and my father played guitar.”

When she was four years old, her parents enrolled her in a classical ballet class, where she says she was “not interested in being a dancer, but I wanted to stop and listen to the accompanist on the piano.” She adds, “The instructor told my parents I think you should take her to piano school.” They did and outfitted her with portable plastic keyboards, before investing later on in a standup piano. “I did not need dolls or want to play with other kids, I had those plastic pianos,” she says.

While she was enrolled in elementary school, she also attended in addition a music school at night starting at the age of six. Practicing from two to eight hours a day before and after regular school, she was invited to a national competition at nine years old.

”It was my first solo concert, and I got to invite the whole school of 500 kids.” The total audience was more than 2,000, says Arsenijevic, who has since performed solo at Carnegie Hall in 2003 and 2004, as well as at the White House.

“They said I have perfect pitch,” says Arsenijevic, of her early instructors. “We were encouraged to pursue the field in the arts and it wasn’t scary,” says Arsenijevic, who compares the youth musical education in Eastern Europe and Russia to youth sports training in the U.S.  

Beginning at 15 at University of Arts in Belgrade, Arsenijevic later earned her masters there. “I was exposed to understanding diversity and because of that diversity there was a base for the richness of my music.”

Arsenijevic, whose many recent music performance videos on YouTube have each up to 500,000 views, began recording in the 1990s, with two albums recorded in Serbia, “Ethno Classic & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” in 1997 and “Mother Tongue” in 1999. She performed across Europe, winning international piano competitions, and was known for her performances on a custom-made transparent plexiglass piano.

Read more in Take The Lead on women in music industry

In 1996, she visited the U.S., to see friends from Bosnia, “and they offered me to do a benefit concert in Pennsylvania for 700-800 people,” she says.

But it was the 1999 Kosovo War that changed her life drastically. Opposing the horrific bloodshed by Yugoslavia of Albanians and Serbian civilians, Arsenijevic performed her original composition, “Kosovo” at the National Museum in Belgrade. The next day she was advised to leave the country and from the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, Hungary, she was invited to enter the U.S. by special Bipartisan Congressional arrangement as “an artist of extraordinary ability.”

“I was orthodox Serbian Christian, and at 20 years old, my whole world collapsed in 1999,” she says. “I was a classically trained pianist, but I created music with elements of Muslim and Christian music and I performed throughout the region. When I went to Kosovo, I was almost a diplomat musician,” Arsenijevic says. As a result, “I created ‘My Balkan Soul,’ that had a big success of 1 million in sales.” She adds, “I personally witnessed what happens when you take a whole and break it into parts.”

She adds, “I had to leave, I believe an artist has to be free. I had the freedom to create freely as an artist in the U.S.“

Returning to Europe—and Serbia—the next year for a tour, more than 300,000 people attended her concerts.

In 2008, Arsenijevic created and performed in “Marina at West Point: Unity Through Diversity,” along with the West Point Band and Cadet Glee Club. The show aired on PBS, and earned an Emmy nomination, running for 10 years from 2009 until 2019, earning more than 180 million views.   

“It reminds people what huge strength there is in diversity and inclusivity,” Arsenijevic says.

Feldt describes Arsenijevic’s motives in her latest book: “She knew no matter where a person is from, music is something that speaks of their trials, obstacles, joys and sorrows.There is a power in music that can for a moment, bring people together during a performance. It is a way of understanding and communicating without malice, hatred or killing.”

Performing in orchestra and concert halls across the U.S. over the last two decades, Arsenijevic has earned the Leaders of Conscience Awards from the Academy of the Sacred Heart, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Deputy Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić in 2018 awarded her as a Knight of the St. Sava Order of Diplomatic Pacifism.

She has made also several recordings, My Balkan Soul in 2002, an album of Chopin waltzes in 2004, Fire & Soul in 2007, and a “Marina at West Point” album in 2010.

Read more in Take The Lead on women in music

While she has received enormous success and accolades, Arsenijevic says, “We know about #MeToo in the field of entertainment. Being a woman who is very talented and exposed in a macho world, that is not an easy task.”

Now working on a Nikola Tesla project composing music for theater, film and stage commemorating the life of her fellow Serbian, Arsenijevic is also composing music for a Broadway play on the life of Mileva Marić Einstein, a gifted mathematician and the wife of Albert Einstein.

Arsenijevic says she has learned many key lessons that guided her career.   

“It’s not a shame to ask for help,” she says. “I created a strong team. I saw the biggest problem for women is trying to have all the answers before you begin. Start your journey and along the way you can figure it out. I may be here today because I did not give up from the war to coming here alone.”

Donating her time and talent to Take The Lead for The Women’s Equality Day Concert, that will also include an appearance by actor Rhodessa Jones, founder of the Medea Project and co-artistic director of Cultural Odyssey, Arsenijevic will be interviewed by Feldt, her neighbor and friend. Arsenijevic will be performing original music as well as beloved favorites such as “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Headlining the Women’s Equality Day concert reflects her lifelong mission of promoting fairness, diversity and equity.

“It is an honor and I am humbled,” Arsenijevic says, “and then I become emotional. When you cry, you are happy crying because you know what you went through. So many women before me fought for this.”

She adds, “Music as universal language can unite us again.”

This post originally ran in Take The Lead.


  • Michele Weldon

    Author 6 books; journalist; NU emerita faculty; The OpEd Project leader; editorial director Take The Lead, mother of 3 sons.

    MICHELE WELDON is an author, journalist, senior leader with The OpEd Project, directing the Public Voices Fellowship initiative at Northwestern University since 2012. She has led OpEd Project initiatives at Stanford, Princeton, Brown, DePaul and Loyola universities, Ms. Foundation, Rush University Medical Center, Center for Global Policy Solutions, Boone Family Foundation, Youth Narrating Our World through The McCormick Foundation,  Urgent Fund Africa  and more. She is an award-winning journalist and author with nearly four decades of experience on staff and contributing positions at North Shore Magazine, ADWEEK, Fairchild Publications, Dallas Times Herald and Chicago Tribune. She is emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School where she taught for 18 years. She was co-director of TEDxNorthwesternU 2014. She is the author of six nonfiction books including her latest, Act Like You're Having A Good Time (2020), Escape Points: A Memoir (2015) and chapters in seven other books; has delivered more than 200 keynotes and appeared on scores of TV and radio outlets globally. A frequent contributor on issues of gender, media and popular culture, her work appears in hundreds of sites including New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, TIME, Christian Science Monitor, Guardian, Slate, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and more. She is editorial director of Take The Lead, a global women's leadership initiative. She serves on the advisory boards of Life Matters Media, Global Girl Media Chicago, Sarah's Inn, Between Friends and Beat The Streets. She is a former member of the board of directors of Journalism & Women Symposium.