29 Mar 2017

Mahan Esfahani: 'baroquestar of the harpsichord'

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 29 March 2017

Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani will make his first appearance in New Zealand this week, performing Poulenc's Concert Champêtre (Pastoral Concerto) with the Auckland Philharmonia.

Esfahani is touted as “the baroquestar of the harpsichord”, and he’s taking the instrument to places that it hasn’t been before, including the BBC Proms where he gave the first solo harpsichord recital in the history of the event.

The list of his achievements and awards is long and impressive but what’s most impressive is his single-mindedness, his determination to establish the harpsichord as a mainstream instrument in classical and contemporary repertoire, and to truly engage with audiences no matter what their impression of the instrument may be.

Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani Photo: Bearnhard Musil

For Esfahani, playing the harpsichord is more than just playing an instrument. “Some kids tinker with cars, I tinker with sound,” he says. “It’s the best thing I can do with my life.”

Some people turn their nose up at the lifestyle he’s chosen, playing an instrument that is considered to be an acquired taste. But that doesn’t bother him one bit.

“I have a good friend who doesn’t like cheese! I think he’s insane, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he laughs. “I’m not saying you have to like it, but just accept that it’s here. We’re here, get used to it.”

The charismatic musician believes people aren’t drawn to the instrument because it’s not what they are used to. “For ears used to bombast and a lot of noise, it might come across as strange,” he says. “If something is meaningful and something is beautiful you don’t have to shout it.”

He’s also tried to quiet the shouts on twitter, by offering tickets to those who don’t agree with his style. He says those who are often anti-harpsichord are aggressive because they are afraid of the unknown. His engagement with those people is turning them into fans, with people coming up to him after shows thanking him for the experience.

“Even if there’s one (harpsichord) convert a day - there’s 365 days in a year,” he says. “I think we have to stop putting people in a position that if they don’t get it, then they are wrong.”

Elitism, he feels, has a lot to do with it. “We have become elitist about classical music. It’s not something you get brownie points in the afterlife by listening to (or playing) classical music,” he says. “If something is beautiful, leave it and people will get onto it.”

There is a class, education and gender divide which he says is also rampant among harpsichord players who are usually Caucasian men. He feels this prevents people from sharing the true magic of music. “Don’t exclude people,” he says.

He’s trying to attract new people to classical concerts by choosing repertoire that he wants to play. Sometimes though, people don’t understand his vision.

“I had this reviewer say “I don’t get this kid. The programming seems to be stuff he wants to play” – yes you smuck! That’s how I plan a recital", he laughs. “I play things I think are cool. Bach is important to me. Bach encompasses life. And musicians who don’t want to engage with him… well too bad for you.”