Mahan Esfahani, who cuts against the grain of stereotypes about harpsichordists, focuses his musically adventurous spirit on the Bach family in his upcoming Seattle Symphony collaboration.
“Controversial artist” is not one of the images that a professional harpsichordist tends to conjure. It cuts against the grain of countless stereotypes involving restraint, uptightness, dusty academicism. But flipping stereotypes is one way of characterizing the remarkable career of Mahan Esfahani, who makes his Seattle Symphony debut Jan. 11 and 12 as the soloist in a program juxtaposing two generations of the Bach family.
The Iranian-born musician, 34, has indeed been the lightning rod for numerous controversies — including a concert in Cologne in 2016 where his performance of music by the American minimalist composer Steve Reich transcribed for harpsichord was disrupted by an outbreak of booing and catcalling. Not to mention any number of his social-media posts that wittily challenge his critics and bêtes noires (running a spectrum from the culinary to the political).
“Why should your assumptions about the harpsichord be different from what they are for any other instrument? I play the harpsichord because it is my personal vehicle for artistic responsibility and self-expression,” said Esfahani in a recent phone interview from his home in Prague.
Born in Tehran, he moved with his family to the D.C. suburbs as a boy, when the Iran-Iraq War was at its height. Esfahani then relocated to Europe a dozen years ago, gravitating toward the Czech capital to study with the legendary harpsichordist (and Holocaust survivor) Zuzana Růžičková. The first to record all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard works on that instrument, she died in 2017, but the cosmopolitan Esfahani continues to make Prague his home base.
It’s relatively rare to catch him there. The itinerant harpsichordist had just returned from an extensive Asian tour. He spends a good three-quarters of his time on the road. This past year has been especially active: along with making his Carnegie Hall debut, Esfahani was singled out for high praise in a pair of BBC Proms concerts devoted to J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which were led by incoming Seattle Symphony music director Thomas Dausgaard.
In addition to renewing his relationship with the Hyperion label with a joyously animated collection of early music by English composers (titled “The Passinge mesures: Music of the English virginalists”), Esfahani embarked on the first in a years-long project with Hyperion by recording the seven toccatas by J.S. Bach. Planned for release in June, it will inaugurate a cycle of the composer’s complete harpsichord works, emulating his mentor Růžičková in a 21st-century context.
One of the central assumptions Esfahani likes to upend is the notion that musicians are attracted to the harpsichord merely out of a quest for historical “correctness” — an idea he repeatedly lampoons. The passion, theatricality and playfulness spilling out from his performances make it clear that the instrument is an extension of his personality. “I adore the piano, but it’s like I’m covering my mouth when I play it. The same goes for the violin, which I’ve also played. For me, the harpsichord is super direct.”
Think the sound a harpsichord produces is too dainty? Esfahani recalls having fun challenging that assumption at last summer’s Proms performances, where he deployed a new instrument he commissioned from a Finnish builder using carbon fiber for the soundboard and equipped with a 16-foot stop to enhance the bass. “Even in the Royal Albert Hall, the sound was so big that it was drowning out the orchestra. Dausgaard told them they had to play louder.”
Esfahani says he enjoyed working with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony so much on their recording of Henri Dutilleux’s orchestral works that he jumped at the chance to make his live debut with the orchestra.
The fact that the program comprises entirely 18th-century music might seem typical for a harpsichordist. But it’s unusual in Esfahani’s case: about 60 percent of the music he plays comes from modern composers. Just a few days after his Seattle engagement, his schedule takes him to London for an evening of harpsichord and electronics.
“Given the choice, I would rather collaborate with modern orchestras,” he explains, “because they’re versatile and can play modern music, but also because you can reach a wider audience.”
While he remains very interested in the period practice associated with the early-music movement, Esfahani says he wants to avoid the sense of inhibition he feels often comes with that. “What I appreciate about an ensemble like the Seattle Symphony is that there’s an attitude of things being possible. And I love working with these musicians.”
Esfahani’s commitment to modern music has not lessened the intensity of his love for J.S. Bach, whose solo keyboard “Italian Concerto” and Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord are on the program. He’s equally enthusiastic about the achievements of sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emmanuel, each of whom is also represented. In his own lifetime, Johann Christian Bach enjoyed a career in London whose fabulous success Esfahani compares to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“You get an extraordinary perspective when you think of the relation of artists within musical dynasties — as with Whitney Houston and Dionne Warwick. We tend to think of J.S. as the root, but he was just one of several generations of great composers. The sons were already pursuing their own aesthetic paths, very different from his. And Dad is OK with this.” The two generations even collaborated, especially in the new genre of the public keyboard concerto, which Esfahani says they helped invent within the span of just a few years.
Whether modern or Baroque music is on the program, Esfahani’s sense of purpose remains the same. “If you think you don’t like it, I’m pretty certain I can convince you otherwise. And if you do like it, bring someone who doesn’t like it. If I get people to think better of the harpsichord and its expressive ability, my job is done.”
Mahan Esfahani and the Seattle Symphony in “The Bach Family Tree,” 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11 and 12; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $21-$77; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org. Seattle Symphony and Seattle Isfahan Sister City Advocacy also present a free discussion, at Benaroya Hall’s Founder’s Room, after the Saturday, Jan. 12 concert, with Esfahani talking about being an Iranian-born artist in the world of Western classical music.