The award-winning musician explains how he fell in love with his instrument and why he’s on a one-man mission to promote it.
You were born in Tehran. What made you choose to play the harpsichord of all things?
My father listened to lots of opera and lots of Beethoven. Prior to the Revolution he had played in rock bands, so there was also Pink Floyd, The Who, that sort of thing. I started playing piano when we moved to the United States but I remember vividly a time when I was nine and we had gone back to Iran for maybe a couple of months. My uncle gave me some cassettes to take back to the States. There was one cassette of Karl Richter playing some Bach harpsichord concertos. I probably played that cassette a thousand times because I broke it finally.
Did that music grab you immediately? And how exactly did it make you feel?
It was a gut reaction. I thought, “if anything is this complex then it’s got to be worth someone’s time”. I was floored by just how complicated it sounded. But it isn’t an either/or for me between the harpsichord and the piano. It isn’t that I have some sort of reaction against the piano, nor is it that every time I’m listening to the harpsichord I’m pining after the piano.
No, I just happen to like the harpsichord.
So how did you go about getting the chance to learn how to play the instrument?
That’s a very good question. I mean, once you know you like it, what the heck do you do? Well, first I petitioned my father to take me to every kind of concert where there was a harpsichord just so I could see one on stage. There’s this moment when I see a harpsichord – and that’s every day now when I walk into my own studio – where my heart skips a little beat. I still have that fascination with the instrument. Actually, the first person who really showed me that the harpsichord was worth spending my life doing was an Australian – a man named Peter Watchorn, who lives in Boston. After I finished university I was at a loose end. I knew I wanted to go to Europe because it was absolutely pointless to stay in the States. So I thought I’d better spend a couple of years honing my craft a little bit, understanding the harpsichord and knowing what it’s about. And so I went to Peter privately and studied with him. I’d been playing by myself and sort of fiddling around before that, but Peter was the first person who showed me that the harpsichord is a real instrument.
“There’s this moment when I see a harpsichord – and that’s every day now when I walk into my own studio – where my heart skips a little beat“
Did you have harpsichord heroes back then?
Richter was not really a hero, but he was the first. Landowska of course. I mean, Wanda Landowska – how do you avoid her? She was a big hero. Then there was Ralph Kirkpatrick – he’s still a big hero obviously – and Trevor Pinnock. And Zuzana Růžičková, who I later studied with. She’s one of the great artists of the 20th century.
You seem to have embraced music by modern composers as well as what most people think of as early music…
Do you want to hear something really funny? I only started playing modern composers after I got into the BBC New Generation Artists scheme. I had no interest in modern music before that. We had people like Brian Ferneyhough teaching at Stanford – I mean, a big modern music component – and I did everything I could to avoid it! When I was a New Generation Artist I was dependant on the cheques from the BBC, which you can imagine is a miserable place to be in, and one of the producers said, “Look, the orchestras are not taking any concertos from you. They’re not going to take any Bach or whatever you have from the Baroque period. You’ve got to come up with something else.” So they gave me a batch of modern concertos. We started with Poulenc, which is not really modern, and went on to Martinu. Someone handed me some Ligeti and then I bought a score of Henze, and then someone asked if they could write a piece for me, and I thought “OK”. So modern music just kind of happened.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I want to play the great repertoire for harpsichord, like Bach, Rameau and Frescobaldi. I’m not interested in the little masters we’ve dug up – I’d rather we just buried them again. One day, after completing an enormous Bach project, I will probably stop playing Baroque music and just concentrate on modern music. I find a lot of earlier music insipid to be perfectly honest. Divorced from its social context a lot of it is just silly. With modern music you feel like you’re engaging with our own time. That’s exciting!
So what if someone thinks, “Hey, this guy is interesting but I just don’t like the sound of that instrument.” Is there anything you can say or do that might change their mind?
I’m glad you brought that up. It sounds a little arrogant, but this ‘reservation’, if you like, tends not to be an issue when they hear me play. I’m not saying, “Wow, I sweep away all preconceptions.” No, but I think even the most hard-hearted listener suspends disbelief when they hear something done with conviction. That’s what drew me to the harpsichord. That’s what drew me to someone like Landowska. Look, the instrument she played is not exactly what we’d consider kosher today – it was quite a bad instrument, actually – but there’s such conviction and fire in the playing. She never for a moment doubted the harpsichord’s ability to do anything. I think that’s so crucial, and not just with an instrument but as a person. Carry yourself in the world as though you have no doubts. It makes such a difference.
Do you think young players like yourself are making the instrument more popular today?
You know, I really don’t like some of the marketing of the harpsichord today. It’s sort of, “Hey, don’t worry, this is cool!” Or, “no need to actually listen to the music because this guy is cool.” Well, I’m most definitely not cool. I’m one of the least cool people ever! But this instrument is so important to me. There is nothing in the world as important to me as the harpsichord. There is nothing or nobody that I see everyday for whom I am filled with so much admiration or love. I know that sounds kind of weird, but that’s just who I am. It occupies every waking moment – it’s an obsession. Almost everything I see in life, I see in relation to playing the harpsichord. I’ve found the one thing I really live for, and that hopefully is going to get me through thick and thin. It’s a vocation. It’s a calling. For me it’s a mission – a word that you spread. I see it – like St. Paul – as a sort of missionary act. When someone asks me to play I think, “What’s good for the instrument? What’s good for the harpsichord?” That’s how I make my decisions. That and how’s the fee? [laughs]
Mahan Esfahani plays a recital at QPAC for Brisbane Baroque on April 18.