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Mahan Esfahani: 'There is no end to expanding one's mind'

Robert Rowat

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani does his best work at night — "It's when I'm really on," he told us recently — so he didn't think twice when the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Germany, invited him to play Bach's Goldberg Variations last Sept. 22 at midnight.

The late start is the norm at the primarily pop/electronic/singer-songwriter festival that has lately started including a small number of classical acts in its lineup. "That crowd is more receptive to new things than most people in classical music are, frankly," he said.

Esfahani's star is rising fast. He's the only harpsichordist on the roster of Deutsche Grammophon and has been making an impression with concerts that combine baroque and modern music. Last March, in Köln, he learned firsthand how entrenched some audiences can be when his performance of Steve Reich's Piano Phase was interrupted by jeers from the audience. There to hear Bach, they were offended by Esfahani's inclusion of modern music.

“The atmosphere was tense but totally fascinating to witness,” Esfahani told Slipped Disc. “Most of the people who walked out or catcalled tended to be older men who clearly felt some sort of anger about having to listen to this piece. They were being shouted down by younger people — mostly women, in fact. A few people were crying.”

While the Köln audience's reaction is hard to fathom, it does illustrate the challenge facing Esfahani. "All I'm doing is to respond to the harpsichord as though it is already part of the musical mainstream," he told us.

A new champion of an old instrument, Esfahani's debut album on Deutsche Grammophon, 2015's Time Present and Time Past, posited works by Geminiani, Scarlatti and Bach alongside contemporary pieces by Henryk Górecki and Reich (the aforementioned Piano Phase.) "With his dazzling displays, Iranian-born Mahan Esfahani is sweeping away the image of his instrument as an antique," wrote the Times' Anna Picard, just one of many reviewers who hail Esfahani as a game-changer.

"I take the harpsichord without limitations as a given," says Esfahani, a little reluctant to accept all the praise. "That's really all it is, and I suppose people are responding to that. ... The only thing I can do is to encourage people to remove ideological blinders from their eyes."

Audiences in Quebec and Ontario will soon have a chance to do just that: Esfahani will give a solo recital (Sweelinck, Rameau and J.S. Bach) on Nov. 20 at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston. He then joins Les Violons du Roy for concerts in Quebec City (Nov. 24) and Montreal (Nov. 25) in which he'll play harpsichord concertos by Górecki and J.S. Bach.

'A second adolescence'

How did the harpsichord enter Esfahani's life? "I think that probably the most important place my parents would take me ... was the local public library," he recalled.

"Interestingly, the place I still feel the most at home (other than being behind the keyboard of a harpsichord) is a library, either public or academic. Anyhow, on one of these visits, when I was maybe eight or nine years old, I can remember very clearly what I brought home — three cassettes: Schubert Lieder sung by Wunderlich, Horowitz's Moscow recital, and a recital of sonatas by Scarlatti played by Zuzana Růžičková. I think all three of them were ultimately quite important to me, but the third one changed my life and so here we are."

Esfahani would eventually study harpsichord with the woman he heard on that cassette tape.

Růžičková, a promising young harpsichordist growing up in the 1930s in Bohemia, survived the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and, later, the Terezin ghetto and Auschwitz death camp, to resume her studies and become a major musical figure, recording the complete solo harpsichord works of Bach for Erato.

Esfahani had his first lessons with Růžičková in the Respirium (a large 18th-century room) at the Performing Arts Academy in Prague, a space he says is his favourite place to make music. "[I] learnt that there is no end to expanding one's mind. My first day in that room was like the beginning of a second adolescence."

Růžičková became his mentor: "She, like [Wanda] Landowska before her, had and continues to have a message which we should all heed: that the harpsichord has no limitations, and that each generation has the responsibility to re-interpret and re-imagine older music." One wonders about her influence on Esfahani's latest album on Deutsche Grammophon, Bach's Goldberg Variations, which was praised in the Guardian for its "piercing insights."

A new lover

As is the case for pianists and organists (but probably more so), harpsichordists don't always get to choose the instruments they're asked to play and Esfahani says there's an adjustment period before any performance. "In a way, discovering a new instrument can be like discovering someone's body for the first time," he explained. "Sorry to frame it in those terms, but it makes sense!"

What may seem minor to the layperson can be important to the harpsichordist. "For instance, the distance between the quill and the string when the jack is in 'resting' position: if the distance is too great, it means that there's lost energy between pressing the key and the string being plucked, and this can be extremely irritating to me. This is but one of many variables that I just have learnt to deal with."

"Every instrument is ultimately imperfect in that our best efforts come short of a composer such as Bach," he continued. "That being said, I value and respect all builders who have something to say, but I also question the motives of builders who think that their instrument's voice should impose itself on the music in such a way as to force a completely new interpretation. These sorts of people have auteur pretensions and should just write their own music for their own instruments. Ultimately, an instrument is as representative of a person's personality as much as a performance is. So, when I get to know a builder personally, I get to know their instruments very well, and I really enjoy that experience."

Calling all violinists

Esfahani is focusing his efforts, for now at least, on a solo career. "The harpsichord deserves someone who'll dedicate themselves to the solo repertoire, and with commissioning new music and always broadening my aesthetic horizons, I have to be careful about knowing what I will and won't do." If he were to make an exception, it would be for one of his other loves, the violin. "I'd still kill to be asked to play through the enormous violin-harpsichord repertoire (both ancient and modern) with a great fiddler, but no one's asked yet," he said.

"Now and then I like to play some chamber music (I still am trying to see if anyone wants to play the Elliott Carter quartet sonata!), but generally I keep my activities to those of a soloist."

When we asked Esfahani who his role models are, he replied, "In no particular order: Voltaire, Emma Goldman, J.S. Bach, Morton Feldman, Tolstoy, Sviatoslav Richter, Duke Ellington." It's an eclectic list that underlines his overall philosophy, which he articulated in a 2010 video profile produced by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust and still adheres to: "This is a great period. We can partake of so many cultures and experiences so easily. That, actually ... should lead to a world in which we understand each other more. Funny how it hasn't yet, but it should."

Mahan Esfahani will give three performances in Canada this month:

Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2:30 p.m.: Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston, Ont.

Thursday, Nov. 24, at 8 p.m.: Palais Montcalm, Quebec City

Friday, Nov. 25, at 7:30 p.m.: Bourgie Hall, Montreal

Explore more:

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