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Mahan Esfahani Makes It Happen on the Harpsichord

by Victoria Looseleaf, February 22, 2021, San Francisco Classical Voice

Mahan Esfahani performans Bach's Goldberg Variations for Cal Performances at Home

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani performs as part of Cal Performances at Home, streaming premiere March 4

The Scotsman’s David Kettle once hailed Mahan Esfahani’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a “deeply human experience, brimming with humor and wit, cool objectivity, deep tragedy, and startling joy.” And while most live performances in the States have been cancelled due to COVID-19, the Iranian-born, American-raised Esfahani, who currently lives in Prague, recently filmed the masterwork for a Cal Performances concert that will be available for viewing online beginning March 4 for three months.

Harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková

Zuzana Růžičková

Living in Maryland with his family, Esfahani became enamored with Bach at age 11, although he didn’t begin studying the harpsichord in earnest until he was at Stanford, where he majored in musicology and history, also working as a repetiteur and studying in Boston with Peter Watchorn before completing his training in Prague with the eminent Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková. The rest, as they say, is history: The musician was the first and only harpsichordist to be a BBC New Generation Artist (2008–2010); a Borletti-Buitoni prize winner (2009); a nominee for Gramophone’s Artist of the Year (2014, 2015, 2017); and on the shortlist as instrumentalist of the year for the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards (2013, 2019).

Indeed, Esfahani not only has a rich discography for Hyperion and Deutsche Grammophon, the latter including his acclaimed 2016 recording of Goldberg Variations, but is also a renowned concerto soloist. Performing under leading conductors such as Ludovic Morlot and Thierry Fischer, Esfahani, who was born in 1984, has also forged chamber music partnerships with, among others, violinist Stefan Jackiw and cellist Maximilian Hornung. Considered part of a new generation of players that The New Yorker’s Alex Ross described as helping give, “an almost hipsterish profile to an instrument that has often been stereotyped as archaic and twee,” Esfahani makes no bones about his fondness for new music.

In so doing, he is reigniting excitement for the harpsichord, spending about 60 percent of his time playing works by, among others, Cage, Ligeti, and Kaija Saariaho, as well as commissioned pieces, all while continuing to push the musical envelope. Also a commentator on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, where he hosts such programs as Record Review and is at work on his fourth radio documentary, the fiendishly busy Esfahani was in Prague where I caught up with him by telephone. We chatted on a range of topics, including, of course, Bach, his provocative choice of concert programming, and his ongoing quest to mainstream the harpsichord.

Mahan Esfahani in a tuxedo leans against a harpsichord

Mahan Esfahani | Credit: Marco Borggreve

What is it about Bach and the Goldberg Variations that both musicians and audiences alike can’t seem to get enough of?

Bach throughout the 19th century and a good part of the 20th century was not a popular composer. Whatever it is that seems to tap into peoples’ psyches about Bach wasn’t universal. I think because we have had such ample time to be with his music, now we are understanding it. It took us 300 years, so why wouldn’t that happen with a lot of new music? It took 70 years to understand Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, [which was like] a car crash. Great art needs time and it needs space. Maybe it needs space to speak to us as a society. That’s how I like to look at it. […] read the full interview on San Francisco Classical Voice

This interview was done in conjunction with the Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord performance, part of the Cal Performances at Home Spring Season.

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