Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, currently in residence at the threatened Lammermuir Festival, tells KEN WALTON why tradition is as much about looking forward as looking back
Earlier this week, a shocked Lammermuir Festival revealed that Creative Scotland, after two invited re-submissions, had turned down its funding application for the 2023 programme, currently in mid-flow, leaving the future of the East Lothian festival in doubt. The news has shocked its organisers, supporters, and not least the performers who rank among the world’s topmost stars.
One of these is Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, whose week-long presence as resident artist in this year’s Festival has given him an extended insight not only into what the event means in servicing Scotland’s and East Lothian’s cultural thirst, but the crucial role it plays in promoting new musical talent within a high stakes environment.
He had this to say in response to Creative Scotland’s latest act of evisceration: “At a place like Lammermuir, we are really talking about more than a series of concerts. We’re sharing as wide a range of music as can be imagined with different communities in a large region of Scotland that shows remarkable enthusiasm for it and which moreover trusts the performers.
“And we see tribute paid to established artists alongside the crucial work that needs to be done in giving opportunities and a platform to tomorrow’s stars. In this sense, Lammermuir Festival is the very model of a modern festival.”
Esfahani, himself, is the very model of a modern pioneer. More than most, he has taken an instrument more often associated with museum status – the early music movement’s predilection for archeological scrutiny of ancient repertoire, which is fundamentally valid in itself – and thrown open the doors to the harpsichord’s relevance in a modern world.
As such he has challenged the historical connoisseurs and is as equally comfortable performing Byrd, Scarlatti or Bach (he opened this week’s Lammermuir residency with an exhaustive performance of the Well Tempered Clavier Book II, and teams up on Sunday with the SCO in Bach’s concertos) as introducing curious audiences to contemporary harpsichord music by the likes of Andriessen, Takemitsu, Jockel and Ferrari involving electronics.
One critic described Esfahani deservedly as “a superstar whose musicianship, imagination, virtuosity, cultural breadth and charisma far transcend the ivory tower in which the harpsichord has traditionally been placed.”
He views that “ivory tower” with some scepticism, but dismisses the notion that just because he seeks new modes of expression for the instrument he is some kind of crazy maverick. “”From the time of the harpsichord’s revival at the beginning of the 20th century, contemporary music is nothing new, so I merely see myself as continuing the tradition of that instrument.
“Every instrument should concern itself with new music, otherwise its tradition dies. I say pointedly that what called itself the Early Music Movement actually interrupted those traditions. It’s a post-modern movement that has nothing to do with tradition.”
The bottom line for Esfahani is simply the quality of the music. “I look for a composer who demands everything from me as a performer,” he explains. “There is harpsichord music, equally from the 17th/18th centuries, which I find takes the easy way out expressively. That’s to say it doesn’t extend one’s demands of the capabilities of the instrument. Bach or Byrd, these are composers who ask you to imagine possibilities beyond the ordinary.
A year ago, Esfahani gave the UK premiere in Edinburgh and Glasgow of Poul Ruders’ Concerto for Harpsichord, a work exploding with inventive hues and textures, ethereally enhanced by electronic amplification. “I wanted a piece that was virtuosic, that sang, that understands that the harpsichord has an infinite range of colours,” he recalls. He got what he wanted.
His contemporary programme in St Mary’s Church Haddington earlier this week involved interaction with electronics, but what of the instrument itself? If tradition demands that the music itself must challenge the status quo, is it okay to meddle with the sacred design of the actual harpsichord?
“You just have to look at the Russell and Rodger Mirrey Collection of old instruments in Edinburgh to realise how knowledgable the older builders were about acoustics, about sound,” Esfahani argues. “Yes, it’s important we take signals from them today, but at the same time these builders were practical. Take the example of the Ruders concerto, where I used a very large, very loud instrument of mine, and you said today to, say, Ruckers or one of the great 18th century instrument makers, ‘we have this thing called the Usher Hall and have to fill the sound in there – what do we do?’
“He’d say, ‘okay we could do this or that. We have this thing called plastic, this thing called carbon fibre, let’s work with that.’ We have screws, they didn’t. Do you think they’d have objected to using screws? Often times these arguments are used in a very truant way. People say, there’s the piano; Bach would have preferred it, but we don’t know that. It’s very possible he would have, but he would have written differently for it.
“At the end of day we can engineer, though we have to be careful. We don’t want to engineer the harpsichord out of existence.”
As for his Lammermuir residency, which continues on Friday with a recital of Bach’s English Suites before Sunday’s concerto programme as soloist/director with the SCO, it’s an experience Esfahani has found immersive and satisfying.
“Of course I love it, in a way I assume that when I play the next concert the listeners will have heard the previous one. They get to know what I’m on about, and that conversation with them changes. During Bach’s 48 last Friday, I sensed after an hour that they were in the zone, that I could manipulate them a little bit. You have to always communicate. What’s the point if you don’t?
“Last night I though at times I can push the envelope a little bit – let’s see what we can discover together in this piece. Otherwise it just becomes an exercise in virtue. In which case, why not just stay at home and look at the score?”
That’s something Creative Scotland might well mull over as it puts the stranglehold on yet another priceless cultural gem.
Mahan Esfahani’s Lammermuir Festival residency continues with a Coffee Concert of Bach’s English Suites on Fri 15 Sep at Holy Trinity Church in Haddington; and ends with the SCO in Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos, Sun 17 Sep at Dunbar Parish Church, Full Festival details at www.lammermuirfestival.com