Mahan Esfahani’s goal in life, his biographical note says, is to “bring the harpsichord to the concert mainstream”. To further this, the Iranian-American musician commissions new pieces, which is certainly one way of taking the keyboard instrument that plucks its strings out of history’s cocoon and welcoming it into the modern world. The other way is to give such thunderously exciting performances of old repertoire that anyone with ears to hear will sit there with mouth agape.
As the outstanding harpsichordist of the younger generation, Esfahani naturally plays the toccatas on a harpsichord… Esfahani’s playing feels free and spontaneous without losing the underlying pulse of the music. The toccatas display their brilliance proudly. One can imagine the young Bach showing off his prowess just like this.
Mahan Esfahani was nine when he first heard a harpsichord. He and his parents were visiting Iran, the country where he was born, and which his family had left for the US five years before. “An uncle gave me a bunch of cassettes,” he says. “One was of Karl Richter [the German conductor and harpsichordist] playing Bach. Well, I listened to it, and I thought: ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’ I don’t mean in terms of a career. I just thought my life would be well spent in the company of this instrument. I thought I would get a profession, which is what every Iranian parent wants for their child, and that – once I was a doctor or lawyer – I’d be able to buy a harpsichord, and play at home.”
ORPHEUS CHAMBER ORCHESTRA at the 92nd Street Y (May 8, 7:30 p.m.). The harpsichordist de nos jours Mahan Esfahani is the soloist in two relatively recent concertos, by Manuel de Falla and Bohuslav Martinu. Also on the bill are two arrangements for nonet, one of Mozart’s Wind Quintet by Jean Françaix, and another of Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” by Brett Dean.
“Johann Sebastian Bach is my favourite figure in all of history: the master of masters, the big wig in the sky. But he’s also one of the most misunderstood. In my new show on Radio 3 I will be finding new ways to approach his music, as well as challenging some of the myths that have arisen about him. These are some of the keys to his life and work.” – Mahan Esfahani
Contrary to the misguided and musty reputation often bestowed upon classical music, this art form is very much alive — and in the hands of many talented and creative musicians ushering it forward. That’s why WQXR is kicking off 2019 by introducing “19 for 19,” a group of artists we love that includes long-time heroes, established favorites and newcomers set for stardom.