Mahan Esfahani is Making the Harpsichord Cool Again
The incredible fury of his fingers dancing across the keyboard was mesmerizing. He played with great focus and intensity, captivating his audience with rich and resonant sounds. With every climactic chord, with every deliberate pause, it felt like he was telling a story—its characters and plot unfolding in every corner of the concert hall. The plot twist? An unexpected musical repertoire that combined the Baroque ethos of Bach with the contemporary jazz of Joseph Horovitz. The musical storyteller in question is Mahan Esfahani, an Iranian-American harpsichordist living in Prague. The 36-year-old virtuoso is devoting his life to an instrument from a bygone era—and making it cool again.
The harpsichord isn’t the kind of instrument you pick up on a whim. Esfahani first encountered it as a young boy listening to a cassette recording. At the time, he was a serious pianist, but had no notion of what a harpsichord was, let alone how to play it. He and his father (who was also a musician and now works in the US civil service) bought a harpsichord “kit,” which they assembled together. This unconventional father-son activity was one that, unbeknownst to a young Esfahani, foreshadowed a future career.
It’s hard to know what to ask a harpsichordist, but a good place to start is to demystify the instrument itself, largely stereotyped as an obsolete musical relic. It is a keyboard instrument and was one of the most important of its kind in Europe starting in the 16th century. Like a harp, its strings are designed to be plucked (not struck, like its modern successor, the piano). The mechanism is sophisticated and gives off a convivial sound—one that is often mistaken for an organ.
“I would say that the plucking of any string—whether on a guitar, harp, or harpsichord—can be thought of as a pencil sketch,” says Esfahani. “It’s a sound that is searching for something, in a way that an oil painting isn’t.”
Esfahani has clearly found his musical voice, though it didn’t come right at the start.
Born in Tehran in 1984 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, Esfahani and his family were among the masses of displaced Iranians who emigrated to the United States.
“I think if that displacement had not happened, I wouldn’t have become a musician,” he says, taking a sip of his black brew in the coffee shop where we met. “Some people find their way home, some people don’t. I think art is a way of coping with that.”
It wasn’t until Esfahani went to Stanford that he actually began studying the harpsichord. He was not spared the pressure to be successful that many college students face, especially as the child of immigrants.
“My parents wanted me to be a doctor; barring that, a lawyer; barring that, an engineer. It’s easy to lampoon, but I understand it.”
He studied musicology and history, staving off post-graduate PhD offers to pursue his passion of becoming a musician. He decided to move to the East Coast, one step closer to Europe. He studied the harpsichord dutifully in Boston, reminded frequently of his unestablished career by his concerned parents, until moving to Italy—coincidentally (or perhaps not) the epicenter of the harpsichord’s earliest productions.
He was selected as a BBC “New Generation Artist,” a program which serves as a breeding ground for young musical talent. It was from here that his career took off in London, opening up recording and performance opportunities.
His many accolades include playing the first ever solo harpsichord recital in 2011 at the BBC Proms festival in London and earning a Gramophone Award and Diapason d’Or for his first two recordings with Hyperion Records.
Despite his growing success, he found his new life in the UK somewhat unfulfilling.
“I had a career, a busy social life, but I wasn’t happy as a musician,” recalls Esfahani.
He then travelled to Prague to study under revered Czech harpsichordist and Auschwitz survivor, Zuzana Růžičková. She was the zeitgeist of her day and the first harpsichordist to record all of Bach’s works. Although she was retired, Esfahani persuaded her to take him on. Being her last student had a markedly profound impact on his playing.
“I can honestly say to you that until 2017 [the year Růžičková died], I was not one hundred percent in control of my playing. I noticed the biggest difference after she died. It’s kind of like your teacher leaves you with these lessons and it doesn’t register until many years later.”
Esfahani also writes about his relationship with her in the New Yorker, published just after she died at 90 years old.
“Růžičková wrote me a very nice hand-written note after my first recording,” he recalls, fondly. “She said, ‘I’ve listened to your first album. I love some of it. I like all of it.’ I think that expresses her very well.”
This note, he says, was the greatest award of all. Second, perhaps, was permanently moving to Prague.
“Czech thought is that life and art are inextricably one,” he says, with palpable appreciation.
As an arts-affirming city, Prague also drew him for many of the same reasons it does other expats: it’s cheap, accessible, and offers a balanced lifestyle. But there was one more motivating factor for Esfahani.
“Everyone here knows what the harpsichord is!”
When he designed one of his very own, he consciously combined both traditional and modern elements in its construction. Its soundboard is made of carbon fiber composite, which expands the range of its registers. And of course, playing Bach (Esfahani’s musical muse) preserves its antiquity.
“I like to play old and new because I am both old and new,” he says.
More than just a musician, Esfahani is a true savant. He’s able to talk about philosophy as effortlessly as the weather. He further professes his additional loves: philology and collecting rare books.
“I grew up in an environment where the mindset was thinking people don’t do music, thinking people don’t do the arts,” he says, adjusting his tortoiseshell glasses. “The Czech approach to art is very much the diametric opposite to that, where if art isn’t about thinking, then what is it about?”
This philosophy clearly defines his musical persona. He’s bold, with a highly compelling and individual style. He’s not afraid of musical experimentation, reinterpreting the harpsichord’s early traditional sound with a hipster inflection. Some reviews of Esfahani have deemed him a controversial figure with his pushing of musical boundaries. On occasion, his artistic choices have prompted some criticism from more conservative European circles, as was the case several years ago at a concert in Cologne, Germany. But such strong reactions haven’t stopped his innovative musical approach, nor his playful rapport with his audiences.
“People started coming to my concerts because I talked a lot. I like chatting. People don’t want to feel dumb. Music is hard and you want people to feel at ease.”
Esfahani has performed all over the world, from NYC’s Carnegie Hall to Sydney’s Opera House, providing him with a deeper understanding of audience engagement.
“People are different,” he says. “People also listen very differently. Part of my job as a musician is to respond to that.”
For example, Chinese concertgoers, he says, often take pictures and talk when “something really cool happens in the music.” Where some western musicians might view this as a disturbance, Esfahani merely sees it as the audience’s way of interacting with the music.
These cultural differences are inevitable, but Esfahani draws the line when it comes to his own. He refuses to use his platform as a musician to make any social or political pronouncements. By separating craft from personal opinion, he lets the music speak for itself.
“In French aesthetics, how you say something is much more important than what you say.”
I hung on to his words the way his audience might on a suspended note.
“My view is if hearing Bach or Hadyn or Mendelssohn makes you think the world is not right and I need to do something about it, great. But I don’t need to get up on stage and protest. Music itself is a form of protest.”
An article in The Times questions the future prospects of the harpsichord, whose survival is largely contingent on the existence of new compositions, not to mention public demand and interest. While there’s no way to guarantee its longevity, it’s worth lauding the dedicated few who are driven to keep it alive.
Looking to the future, Esfahani doesn’t want to spend his final years playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (been there, done that).
“I want to spend my retirement engaging with my other interests. I want to build a small house and have a dog—smart, with big ears,” he says excitedly, staring out the window as if he could see it through the glass.
A true Bohemian at heart, Esfahani is happiest in Prague where a quieter, less frenetic existence unfolds. Thirty years from now, you likely won’t see him on stage, marking his final performance with a dramatic adieu. Instead, he’ll be sitting in his cottage, reading Russian philosophy to pass the time, with no audience but his Frenchie labrador.