International harpsichord virtuoso to perform in Winston-Salem
A harpsichord is not a piano. A harpsichord player is not a pianist, though they can probably play one pretty nicely. Mahan Esfahani is a harpsichordist. He doesn’t want to be a pianist.
Esfahani, who will perform at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem this week, has been steadily working to reintroduce a new generation of listeners to the harpsichord, playing the beautiful keyboard music of 16th, 17th and 18th centuries as well as music written for the harpsichord from the 20th century and today.
The subject gets a little confusing for most of us because some of the music that we most associate with piano- J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for instance- was not written for piano but for the harpsichord. The sound of the piano is made by hammers striking strings when the keys are pressed. On the harpsichord, the strings are plucked by a system of plectra. The piano is technically a percussion instrument, while the harpsichord has as much in common with the lute or the harp. The two instruments sound dramatically different.
The sonorities of the harpsichord can range from brittle, metallic, glassy or crystalline to deep and cavernously resonant. It can suggest the sound of flutes, or oboes or a sitar, depending on the register, the particular design of the instrument and the acoustic atmosphere. It can evoke the airy warmth of singers, the thrum of guitars, or the cathedral-filling sonic mass of a pipe organ. And, perhaps more than many other types of musical instruments, each harpsichord sounds very different, in part because each one was essentially built differently.
“You’re talking about an instrument that was developed well before the age of standardization, so inevitably there are going to be differences,” said Esfahani, who spoke with me by phone from his home in Prague in the Czech Republic last month. “No two instruments are really alike, and that’s part of the game, really.” We spoke about his career, the history of the harpsichord, the genius of 16th, 17th and 18th-century keyboard composers, and about his upcoming solo recital in the area.
Esfahani is devoted to the harpsichord in part because he’s passionate about the genius of composers like J.S. Bach and William Byrd, who wrote for the instrument, but also because he loves the particular sound that it makes. Esfahani, who was born in Iran and raised in the U.S., became obsessed with the instrument when he heard recordings of harpsichord music as a child. His father would take him to concerts and recitals, but it was a long time before he got the chance to play the instrument. Eventually, he and his father assembled a harpsichord.
“We built an instrument from a kit,” Esfahani said. “It kind of demystified the instrument for me, if you like. It’s all about knowing how the inside of it works.”
He studied musicology and history at Stanford, initially thinking that his goal was to have a non-musical career that would offer him a very different relationship to the instrument.
“I thought that the best thing that I could do with my life was to have the kind of job where I could make enough money where I could buy a harpsichord to play one in the evening,” he said. “When I was growing up, the idea of actually becoming an artist was not particularly encouraged.”
Esfahani’s non-standard trajectory for a career performing classical music in concert halls may be what has made him such a compelling ambassador for the harpsichord.
When I ask him about the other things he likes to do besides playing the harpsichord, he said “I’m into scholarship. I’m into Shakespeare. I collect rare books. I like to draw. I play chess.”
(While discussing popular music, Esfahani mentions that he’s got Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” album on his stereo.)
He’s hosted BBC radio documentaries about the instrument and about Bach, and he’s written many of the liner notes for his releases on the Hyperion label, delving into the interplay between popular song, dance, and the traditions of publicly reciting prose and poetry in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
Earlier this year, Esfahani released a recording of Bach’s Toccatas. In 2016, he put out an album of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, notable in part for his leaving out many of the familiar trills and embellishments on half of the themes, using a theory that he described as “negative ornamentation.” (He’s not averse to those torrents of fluttering trills, cascades of 32nd notes and other pyrotechnic flourishes of the music, letting loose in powerful virtuosic eruptions in plenty of other places.)
And last year, he released an album spotlighting the music of the English virginalists (harpsichord/keyboard composers), with pieces by Orlando Gibbons, Giles Farnaby, John Bull and others. Esfahani is a renaissance man — he plays music, hosts radio shows, writes scholarly articles, and has those non-harpsichord pursuits. And he’s also a Renaissance (capital R) guy, spending a fair amount of his time highlighting later music of that period and the Baroque as well.
But Esfahani is not a powdered-wig reenactor. He expertly refocuses discussions about period authenticity by stressing that his energies are about remaining in conversation with this music, maintaining its vitality by respecting its timelessness. Contemporary theater-goers don’t fret much about whether a current production of “King Lear” is true to the style that Shakespeare’s troupe would have performed at the Globe in the 17th century. And so the music of that era should be given the same latitude.
Part of his mission in continuing to revitalize the harpsichord is both to showcase 20th-century compositions for the instrument and to commission pieces from contemporary composers. Esfahani’s 2015 album Time Present and Time Past featured music by Scarlatti and Bach next to pieces by 20th-century composers Steve Reich and Henryk Górecki. On his recital schedule before his Winston-Salem performance, Esfahani was slated to perform pieces written for the harpsichord by 20th-century American composers like Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. At the Wake Forest concert, Esfahani will play a piece from 1966 by Luciano Berio.
When I ask Esfahani about whether there are other lesser-known composers from the English Renaissance like Bull and Farnaby- that he’s interested in exposing to new listeners, he draws my attention closer to the present, mentioning that he’s recorded a piece of long-forgotten music for the harpsichord by 20th century French composer Luc Ferrari, which will be released on a forthcoming album of electro-acoustic music in the spring of 2020.
“When you’re looking at both new music and old music, what they have in common is that quite a bit of new music or modern music is often neglected,” Esfahani said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Mahan Esfahani at Brendle Recital Hall on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem on Thursday, Nov. 14, at 7:30 p.m.