The Pugnacious Performer Who Wants to Take the Harpsichord Mainstream

LONDON — Mahan Esfahani is a musician on a mission. “Until the harpsichord has the presence that any other mainstream instrument has, my work isn’t done,” he said.

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The Pugnacious Performer Who Wants to Take the Harpsichord Mainstream
, New York Times

LONDON — Mahan Esfahani is a musician on a mission. “Until the harpsichord has the presence that any other mainstream instrument has, my work isn’t done,” he said.

Born in Tehran, raised in the United States and now living in Prague, the 34-year-old is experiencing something of a breakthrough year. He made his Carnegie Hall debut on May 1 (leading the New Yorker critic Alex Ross to describe him as “exuberant, antisentimental, bracing”), and in August, he is to perform for the first time at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Esfahani has also been known to cause controversy with his choice of concert repertoire, and with his denunciations of what he views as other players’ closed-mindedness. He is outspoken on Twitter, bemoaning everything from the death of author Philip Roth to the quality of Chinese takeout in Germany. And in his campaign to get the harpsichord on everybody’s radar, he is downright feisty.

“If the guy on the street or the guy on the flight sitting next to me doesn’t know what the harpsichord is, then we have failed,” he said in a recent interview. “The guy on the plane knows what a piano is.” (They look similar, but differ in how they produce sound. Piano strings are struck by a hammer; harpsichord strings are plucked, giving the instrument a brighter timbre.)

Esfahani’s repertoire choices have certainly irked some audiences. A 2016 concert in Cologne, Germany, was interrupted by booing and heckling when he played Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” on a harpsichord over a recorded track of the first keyboard part (in a version approved by Reich); other concertgoers defended him forcefully.

Clashes have erupted in the media, too. In April 2017, Esfahani, said in an interview with Van, the online classical-music magazine, that he had heard “leading figures in the harpsichord world give recitals that were played as if someone had died. Personally, I’d rather have dental surgery than hear recitals such as these.”

Replying in the same magazine, Andreas Staier, a fellow harpsichordist, wrote that Esfahani would “sell his soul for a little publicity. A little calm would be much better. But he can’t afford it. His fame and his career have more to do with his words than with his music.” Covering the spat a short time later, The Spectator, a weekly British magazine, noted that Esfahani had been “starting small wars since he launched himself a decade ago as the harpsichord’s global ambassador-cum-savior.”

Staier declined by email to comment further. Esfahani, who was also asked about the exchange, said he really liked Staier’s work, and that he tried nowadays to direct his anger at people who “go after the instrument” and dismiss it. He said that he had “hounded” a BBC radio presenter who had made a negative comment about the harpsichord “until they issued a retraction on air,” and that he had asked a publisher to change a remark about the instrument in a novel whose protagonist was a harpsichordist.

The only child of an Iranian musician turned accountant, Esfahani was born in 1984 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. When bombs started dropping on Tehran, the family moved to Maryland. “They made a suburban life with a fence and detached house that I wanted to have nothing to do with when I came of age,” he said. (His parents both still live there and have jobs in the U.S. Civil Service.)

Esfahani remembered being the “class clown” and “always on stage,” playing the piano and violin at school assemblies. Growing up as an Iranian in the United States — in the aftermath of the 444-day siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which ended in January 1981 — was “a burden, mostly,” Esfahani said: It was “something that you always had to explain, something you always had to apologize for.”

He said he felt pressure to “outdo everyone.” He recalled his mother telling him that if he did badly at school, “they’ll say, ‘Not only are Iranians terrorists, they’re stupid too.'”

His father — a music lover who listened to Handel, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner at home — played piano at the local Presbyterian church on Sunday afternoons. There was an organ in the side chapel, and one day, the 11-year-old Mahan sat down to play it. He found sheet music by Bach on the instrument. It was a revelation. “Nothing else in life, still, has grabbed me like Bach,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is the center of my existence.'”

Neither the piano nor the organ mesmerized him as much as the harpsichord, which he first heard at the age of 9, sitting in the library after school. It was a cassette of Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzickova. (An Auschwitz survivor, she later became Esfahani’s mentor; she died in September). He finally got a harpsichord at age 16. But it wasn’t until his years at Stanford University — where he majored in musicology and history — that he actually studied the instrument.

Determined to become a performer, he then spent two years in Boston practicing frenziedly to make up for lost time. Realizing that in the United States “the idea that you would want to be a harpsichordist was, and to some extent still is, considered a massive joke,” he got a scholarship to study the organ in Milan. Just as his visa was expiring, the BBC chose him as one of its New Generation Artists — giving him concert, broadcast and recording opportunities, and opening him up to modern music, which he now spends 60 percent of his time playing. Neil Fisher, a music critic at The Times of London, described Esfahani as a “tremendously expressive artist.”

“Playfulness is a big part of him in the way he expresses himself personally and on social media, but also as a musician,” Fisher said. “That’s hugely welcome when he comes from a world that could be considered overly dry or overly academic — and which is perhaps, he might say unfairly, restricted by repertoire, and by what you can and can’t do in terms of performance.”

Esfahani’s boundary-breaking ability depends on whether new and compelling music is composed for his instrument, Fisher said. Otherwise, he could “hit the limits of the repertoire.”

“We have to be realistic about the breadth of what’s available,” Fisher added. “Yes, there is much music from the 18th century or earlier that he could make convincing, but how much public appetite is there for that at the end of the day?”

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