Mahan Esfahani Q&A

Posted on November 24, 2010

Camerata Q&A
Space Bar 220
Still in his mid-twenties, Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is fast building an astonishing reputation internationally in both early and contemporary repertoir.  He’s becoming a favourite on the concert circuit and joins Manchester Camerata for three concerts – 25 November in Colne, 27 November in Manchester and 2 December in Ulverston.  He took some time out to answer some questions for Manchester Camerata.

Q. When did you first start to play the harpsichord and what drew you to that instrument?

“I suppose I must have heard a harpsichord when I was nine or ten years old, on a cassette tape of harpsichord concerti of Bach played by Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra (from 1955 or so, I think). I don’t care how bad the harpsichord sounded on those recordings – the point is that once I heard the plucked string, I was hooked. “

  Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani

“The story of how I came to Baroque music is so long and boring that I’m not sure I’d want to inflict it on anyone, but I will say that if someone wants to understand why music of the past is beautiful and moving enough to inspire a life dedicated it, I encourage that person to listen to a 78 rpm record on an original machine, and, amidst all those pops and hisses, to hear the past – in other words, to hear it as people of the past heard it. Even the most hard-hearted person is moved by an old record: there’s just something inexplicable in the visceral nature of an old record or piece of old music that is very compelling.

My view of the harpsichord in particular is not one that confines musical language to the ‘cans’ and ‘cannots’ of the harpsichord, although indeed I do think that the harpsichord is capable of a wider range of expression than is commonly thought. I love the harpsichord (or clavichord or organ) because it is the instrument that a figure like Bach or Scarlatti or Frescobaldi thought was perfect enough to make an artistic statement, and so I think that it’s worth taking a look at before dismissing it altogether. I love it because the level of subtlety I can achieve on a harpsichord sometimes still sends chills up my spine. Even if that experience comes about, say, once a year, it’s worth all the tribulations that come about in coaxing expression from any instrument.”

Q. What are you most looking forward to playing in the Baroque in Dresden concert and why?

“I’m not really sure how to answer this question until the concert is finished. I’m very sorry! It’s difficult to predict what will make the greatest impression and what is beautiful independent of what an audience thinks of it on first listen.”

Q. Although the harpsichord is associated most with early music, several notable contemporary composers (including Ligeti, Andriessen and Xenakis) have written for the instrument. Is this a genre you enjoy performing and are you a fan of contemporary music?

“I think any musician should take an interest in the music of their own time. It is ridiculous how some people run away from the modern world by hiding behind the skirts of early music. That’s just irresponsible and, basically, cowardly. The harpsichord is a valid vehicle for any expression of modern musical thought, and I enjoy playing recently-written works as well as commissioning new pieces. It’s exciting to work with a composer in exploring the possibilities of an instrument, and, actually, it informs a great deal about ways to approach music of the past. After all, much music of the past was played by its respective composers; did they remain beholden to various dogmas as represented in period treatises or did they try to stretch the boundaries of their instrument(s) and performer(s)?

Q. Who would you say is the most inspirational musician you’ve worked with so far and why?

Amongst all the musicians I’ve worked with I’d say Johann Sebastian Bach is and will always be the most inspiring. I know he’s dead, but I think it’s alright to speak of him in the present tense. Bach is, in so many ways, a living musician. When I consider how I am always learning from Bach’s example as a composer, as a performer (insofar as one can infer his qualities as a physical performer from his scores), and as a human being, I cannot help but see him as existing in the world of the living. Whenever I have a technical or interpretive problem, I can always count on old Sebastian to guide me through it and to provide me with that quality that everyone musician needs throughout life: humility.

Out of the actual ‘living,’ my teacher Peter Watchorn taught me to always look for the best sound and musical concept, and to always know that I can do better. The organist Lorenzo Ghielmi taught me to trust the composer and the score before modifying or changing music to fit my own aesthetic pre-conceptions. From Rene Jacobs I learned to unlock the real message of a piece of music independent of the limitations of the written note, as if one were trying to understand what motives drove a composer to write something a certain way. From Pedro Memelsdorff I learned to never cultivate indignation as a value in musical scholarship and to always broaden my aesthetic and philosophical horizons. From the greatest mentors anyone could have, George Houle (my mentor at university) and Bjarne Dahl (an instrument collector and restorer), I learned to ignore a musical ‘party line’ in favour of critical thinking.”

Q. Aside from music, what do you enjoy doing during your spare time?

I suppose that what I do for a living is also what I do in my free time – in other words, music for me is also an avocation and hobby. I don’t think I’m the only musician who is this way (I hope). I can’t think of anything more interesting on a ‘night off’ than sitting at the clavichord and playing the Well-Tempered Clavier or improvising. And I do enjoy listening to the sort of music I would never perform – for example, I would never sing or direct Wagner, but I sure do love listening to his music and reading about it.

But, to be fair, there are many things I love to do outside of playing, writing about, reconstructing, directing, and listening to music. When I was at university I developed a great interest in languages, and I like to collect dictionaries and lexicons of various languages and dialects. I started working on a little lexicon, for fun, of various place names in different languages and their derivations. So, for example, the term for ‘German’ in Russian is ‘nyemets,’ which comes from the word for ‘dumb’ (in terms of speech – Russians thought that foreigners were unable to express themselves properly); interestingly, the old Persian term for Germany was ‘nemse,’ which derives from Russian. So that sort of thing is interesting to me.

In my free time, I really enjoy cooking and exploring different types of cuisine. So far, I’m better at eating them and making plates dirty, I guess; but I think that the best kind of tourism is ‘food tourism.’ I collect coins and banknotes and read a lot of history, particularly that of Asia and the Middle East. I read foreign newspapers just for the fun of looking up new words and their derivations. I’m not sure if that’s everyone’s version of fun!

Visit Mahan’s Website    

Concert Details

Space Bar 220    
Listen to Manchester Camerata Podcasts   Mahan Esfahani talks to Bob Jones about his passion for playing the Harpsichord, the repertoir and why he likes playing to the gallery!