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Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on why he plays Saariaho

Features - Classical Music

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on why he plays Saariaho

by Mahan Esfahani on April 20, 2017 (April 20, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
He realised early that if he wanted his instrument to be taken seriously he had to perform contemporary music.

I played in Australia for the first time last year. Originally, the trip back was just for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis Festival, but then Sydney Opera House heard I was going to be in the country and said why don’t you come up and play a recital? And then Piers Lane and I are always running into each other, so that’s how come I’ll be playing in Townsville this year. I guess things sort of snowballed from Brisbane Baroque. You might say the payment I never received for that Festival was made up for by all of these invitations!

Harpsichordist Mahan EsfahaniHarpsichordist Mahan Esfahani

At first, the Utzon Room asked if I could stick to stuff like Bach. I said no, I didn’t think I could, because I like to play modern music these days. They were very receptive, friendly and wonderful people, and so I get to play Saariaho and Reich and mix it up a little bit. OK, so I will be playing some of The Well-Tempered Clavier. I’m just starting to study Book II, which I aim to know in its entirety in five years. I’m dropping bits and pieces throughout all my recitals at the moment because I’m falling a little behind. I wanted to learn the hard ones first, so that’s the logic behind my selection for Sydney. 

Doing new works as well as old is both for the audience and for me. Baroque music offers very limited opportunities for the harpsichord as a solo instrument. I realised early on if I wanted it to be taken seriously, I had to go into regular concert halls with modern and contemporary music and do everything I could to dismiss the argument that the harpsichord is irrelevant.

I’m playing Henry Cowell’s Set of Four for the Utzon Room. You don’t hear much Cowell outside of Europe because of his extended techniques. It was written in 1960 for Ralph Kirkpatrick who requested a nice 15-minute recital set. It’s pure Americana in the best sense, not Americana in the Liberace sense but more Ives’ America; America before the world wars – experimental, eccentric, ornery – which for me is real America. There’s all this talk about “making America great again”, but before it underwent all these imperial anxieties America was great.

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani

I’m also playing Kaija Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II. How she engages with the actual sound of the harpsichord is fascinating. There’s a tape element – synthesised by her at IRCAM – and the combination is amazing. On the harpsichord there are a lot of imperfectly measured waves that make it sound as though there are accelerandi in the part. She essentially sets out to explore two disparate sound worlds with something that at first feels motoric but phases in and out of feeling planned. It should come as no surprise that it came out of Paris in the 1980s.

At the Metropolis Festival I’m playing Ligeti’s Passacaglia Ungherese, one of three pieces he wrote for harpsichord. Ligeti came from a part of Europe where the instrument didn’t have an ancient tradition the way it did in England, France or Germany. A lot of so-called Eastern European composers treated it as a completely new medium. Ligeti’s repetitive patterns show why it lends itself to Minimalism, simply by virtue of the richness of its acoustic properties.

In Melbourne I’m also performing the world premiere of a new concerto by Elena Kats-Chernin. She’s from Central Asia, but she’s also Russian Jewish, which I thought was kind of cool. When I go to a restaurant I’m not picky. I’m the kind of person who usually orders the tasting menu. So when it comes to composers, except for a few notes, I basically let them get on with it. I don’t think it’s my business to interfere. It’s my business to do my best to bring it all out. Now I have the score, it’s basically my problem. 

Later this year I’ll be at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Festivals are a time to connect with colleagues who you never get to see, or only ever bump into at airports. And sometimes it’s nice to meet colleagues you don’t get on with over a beer and fix a bad relationship.

I always request the harpsichord be in a special room, where I can have access at all times, and just play and play. I don’t sleep for a week, I practise like hell, and I get to perform with friends. So that’s why I love festivals and why I’m so glad to be coming back to Australia.


Mahan Esfahani is at Sydney Opera House on April 30, at Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival May 4 – 6, and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music July 28 – August 5

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