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Mahan Esfahani brings modern sounds to the harpsichord

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Mahan Esfahani opens San Francisco Performances’ Pivot series at the Strand Theater. (Courtesy Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon)

Plucky virtuoso Mahan Esfahani is seeking to change the perception that the harpsichord should not be associated with avant garde music.

“I think that there’s resistance from the people who have appointed themselves guardians of some sort of nebulous (and philosophically bankrupt) ‘historical performance’ scene than there is from any member of the mainstream classical music public,” Esfahani said, via email from Prague, where he lives. “To them, the harpsichord is a pleasant stage prop that gets very little outing as a serious solo instrument unless one is to play the sort of morally upright concerts that focus more on antiquity and correctness than on the transcendent art that has endured.”

Esfahani, who studied musicology and history at Stanford, makes his much-anticipated San Francisco debut this week in San Francisco Performances’ first Pivot concert of its 2016-17 season.

His recital “Time Present & Time Past” at the Strand Theater includes period standards of the harpsichord repertoire, including Bach’s glorious Toccata in C minor and sonatas by Scarlatti, but also 1968’s “Piano Phase,” by minimalist American composer Steve Reich.

In February, Esfahani performed “Piano Phase” — a rapidly executed repetition of a 12-note melodic line (and an example of so-called process music) –in Cologne, Germany, to a not entirely receptive audience; some traditionalists booed and hissed.

Nonetheless, the audience gave Esfahani’s performance a hearty round of applause at its conclusion.

“My point here is that basically the harpsichord is going to get it from both sides — from the traditionalists and from the people whose interest in the purely ‘new’ reflects their own anxieties,” he adds. “All I can do is to say that this is an expressive instrument with no limitations.”

Esfahani, who was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1984, remains optimistic about the outlook for bringing the harpsichord back into the mainstream, and for its appeal to younger concert-goers.

“About a year ago, in a recital for a festival at the Barbican in London, I programmed one work with electronics in a program of otherwise Baroque music,” Esfahani says. “After that, I noticed the audience for my concerts changing, and the last time I played at the Wigmore Hall maybe a third of the audience was young and there were a lot of tattoos.

“Now, I’m not saying that somehow tattoos and man-buns define modern relevance. But what I am saying is that people whom we regard as indifferent to classical music actually like it just fine if you make them feel welcome.”

IF YOU GO
Mahan Esfahani
Presented by San Francisco Performances
Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 8:30 p.m. Oct. 8
Tickets: $25
Contact: pivot.sfperformances.org
Note: A demonstration and talk follow the concert.

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