Classic Mornings

Keyboards At 20 Paces?


Go ahead. Harp on the harpsichord!  It might get you a free ticket.

A recently released recording featuring harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani led me to an amusing online article by Michael Church in London’s The Independent.  In the article, Esfahani says that if someone tweets him that they hate the harpsichord, he invites them to one of his concerts.  He adds that nobody has ever said afterwards that they didn’t like it

Esfahani goes on to say that any pianist who wants to slam the harpsichord should be prepared to have a public discussion with him and have a piano and a harpsichord ready on stage.  It’s all rather exciting and somewhat reminiscent of the attention and commotion that’s stirred up when athletes make somewhat boastful challenges. It certainly got my attention, though I have to admit, I already was convinced that Mahan Esfahani might well attract new audiences to the harpsichord. That‘s based on a couple of his recordings and the fact that in 2011 he presented the first harpsichord recital in the history of the BBC Proms – the summer concert series presented at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Mahan Esfahani, who was born in Tehran, moved with his family to the United States when he was 4 years old. He seems to be a successor of sorts to the late Igor Kipnis, who generated interest in the harpsichord through his cross-country tours. I heard Kipnis perform years ago. It was a memorable awakening to some of the unique qualities of the instrument.

I admire the “show biz” in Esfahani’s challenge to pianists. Classical music needs a little spectacle now and then.  I’m guessing that by comparing the strengths of the two instruments, he’s not talking about a “battle of the bands” type of contest. In fact, just before he issued the challenge to Michael Church’s readers, Esfahani said that the harpsichord enables you to hear much more subtlety.  We have been enjoying pianists playing the keyboard music of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti for years.  It’s hard to imagine that they’re unaware of the soft-spokenness of the plucked strings of the harpsichord, for which that music was written.

That being said, don’t be fooled. Those instruments can be big and burly too. I interviewed Igor Kipnis a few days in advance of that concert I attended. That made me a natural choice for a volunteer to help him and a few others load the instrument into the back of his vehicle after the program. I’ve been reserved in my thoughts about the delicacy of the harpsichord since that experience.

Esfahani’s challenges remind me of Classic Mornings. No, I don’t promote the program by saying that if you hate classical music, I want you to tune in. But I do my best to make the program appeal to as broad an audience as possible.  That includes those who never dreamed they would get excited about classical music as well as those long-time listeners who can be rather particular when it comes to what’s playing.  Many have told me they never really considered themselves classical music listeners, but are big fans of the program. I’m not surprised. I know that there are so many great pieces that audiences may not have had the chance to hear or performances that might finally warm them up to a composer or a composition. My challenge is to find those pieces and to make listeners aware of them. You’ve heard me say how excited I am that somebody is hearing one of the great works for the very first time or that a piece is going to come along “with your name on it.”  If only I could observe when that happens. I certainly anticipate it all the time!

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