Mahan Esfahani – a mini Q&A

Here at Music at Oxford, we were so excited about the idea of Mahan Esfahani playing for us… that we couldn’t resist getting to know him a little better before the big night.
Here’s some of Mahan’s thoughts and food wishes!

Q: We’ve noticed that you love to travel and have lived in some fabulous places… if you could take the best bits of each place and live them out in a day, what would you do and where would you be?
A: I’d like to wake up in my own bed (overlooking a beautiful garden in a mostly 19th century district of Prague) before practicing in one of the cabins at Aspen. Then I’d have coffee in the conservatory in Milan – where I always used to go before using the library – and then, of course, doing some work in that library. Lunch would be at Buralli in Lucca, and then I’d have a lesson with my teacher Ruzickova back in Prague before practicing for most of the rest of the day. Dinner would be at Kyubei in Tokyo, and then I’d then go hear Britten Sinfonia or BCMG play practically anything anywhere. One more hour of late night practice before going to bed in my bedroom at my parents’.
Q: Tell us about your favourite morning, real or imaginary… what are you eating, listening to and where are you?
A: I have little rituals which provide some continuity even when I’m not home (which seems to be 95% of my existence right now). I’m drinking any sort of Chinese tea with a porcelain gai wan – while marking up music that I’ll work on that day. I usually spend the first hour of the day reading either a book or the news. Then, if I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I pick up viennoiseries from a little bakery on my square. The ideal morning is really spent at home, on my balcony.
Q: You work a lot with the music of our time, and with living composers. Does your exposure to contemporary music inform your performance of older music?
A: It most certainly does have a great impact, if only because working with a living composer makes “real” the idea of a dead composer having been alive. Historic and historic figures are subject to the same nuances and complications as the actual and mundane.
Q: You seem always to be pushing the boundaries: in relation to how the harpsichord is perceived; your admirable commitment to new music of many styles; and your never-ending quest to understand the music of Bach. What drives you so much, and how on earth do keep your energy levels up?!
A: I sort of am an obsessive. As for how I keep it together, it’s really quite simple. I just ask myself: “is this good for the harpsichord?” Since I more or less self-identify with this instrument – and in particular Bach – I have a tendency to take everything very personally.
Q: What is it about the Goldbergs, do you think, that gives them this universal and timeless appeal? Is it a quality that you can put into words?
A: Bach’s approach to this relatively straightforward and commonplace harmonic structure is best understood in contrast to the way it was handled by other composers. There’s something about Bach’s language which travels as a self-sufficient time capsule transcending the limitations of different eras and cultures. That being said, Bach’s music was not massively appreciated by his contemporaries, so maybe it’s not as universal as we think it is.
Q: Finally, what are you most looking forward to in the next year?
A: Learning two new commissions (both concertos) will be exhilarating. And by the end of the season I’ll be taking of a new “mystery” harpsichord, which – if all goes to plan – will somewhat re-write the history of the instrument.
Mahan Esfahani: Friday 11 November 2016, 7.30pm Sheldonian Theatre.