Mahan Esfahani, harpsichordist (photo credit: © BBC / Marco Borggreve)

Who or what inspired you to take up the harpsichord, and make it your career?

I think it’s impossible for people involved with the harpsichord to deny the influence of Wanda Landowska (1879-1959). Landowska was the first to make the modern concert stage take it seriously, and, quite frankly, I wonder whether successive generations did plenty to kill the goodwill of the public that she had so painstakingly engendered. Her command, her confidence, her authority, her drama, her understanding of what a plucked string means – she is why I am here. I guess you could say that the decision to take it full on and make a career out of it had a bit to do with latent adolescent rebellion against parents who loved the Romantic repertoire…

Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?

Probably my playing as a soloist has been most influenced by a lot of the orchestral recordings I grew up with. Otto Klemperer’s readings of the Bruckner and Beethoven symphonies go to the very depths of each piece without resorting to any formulae or cliches. Nikolaus Harnoncourt shows that it is possible to be historically-informed and yet not resign oneself from the messy business of artistic licence and an aesthetic principle.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

You would think that my answer would have something to do with the mainstream not taking the harpsichord seriously. I won’t say that hasn’t been a challenge, but so far the biggest challenge has come from fighting the dogmatism, ignorance, sensationalism, inability to embrace change, increasing emphasis on a star system at the expense of actual music, and general intellectual laziness of the so-called world of historical performance.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I’m proud (if that can be the word – delighted, happy?) when someone says to me that I can make the harpsichord sing. That’s me at my best – not fast fingers, not certain effects, but just the idea of the instrument singing and, might I add, speaking.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Where the spirit of the composer descends and in an act of transubstantiation inhabits our ears, our minds, our hearts, and, occasionally, my fingers (if I’m lucky), that’s the best place.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I like to perform whatever is in front of me at the moment! To listen to, there’s nothing better for me than one of the Bach Cantatas, or Haydn’s Creation. Lately I have been listening to Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit on repeat; how can anyone write such a beautiful melody? I have to admit that I like salon music very much – Quilter, Sullivan, and all that. I recently heard Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet – it’s a work of genius!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Sviatoslav Richter. He is like a bear at the piano – always struggling, fighting, taking risks, thinking out loud. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it is always imparting his special genius. I always try hear and study everything by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To aspiring musicians, I can only say: focus only on your music and the quality of your execution and your message, and the rest will come. You will come into contact with a lot of young ‘musicians’ who think they need to dress the part, attend nice parties, and in general fit some sort of silly expectation of what artistry means, and I’m afraid it usually has to do with the bank of Mummy and Daddy. This is all nonsense. These people don’t believe in their musicianship. Even if you are destitute on the street and haven’t two coppers to rub together, you will always have your music, and that is more valuable than anything.  I know a lot of voices say otherwise, but, really, trust me on this.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a very interesting harpsichord transcription of Bach’s A-minor Solo Sonata BWV 1004; it may have been made by one of his sons or, in all probability, by his student and son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol. I’ve also just gotten my teeth into another marvellously fiendish concerto by C.P.E. Bach.

What is your most treasured possession?

Right before I left university, my mentor George Houle gave me two very special things as parting gifts. One was a small booklet with a cover reading, ‘the Dolmetsch Concerts,’ which contains the various dates and programmes for a set of concerts performed by Arnold Dolmetsch and his family in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. These were amongst the first performances of music on period instruments ever attempted in the United States, and so it’s very precious. Dr. Houle also gave me a turquoise bolo tie, a piece of American Western fashion which I think is now rather passé – this belonged to Landowska’s American student Putnam Aldrich, who later went on to found the early music programme at Stanford. It’s a nice connection to those pioneers who started this whole movement, and for some reason the bolo tie in particular reminds me of my university years in California, which were very happy and eye-opening in every respect.

Mahan Esfahani’s biography

Review of Mahan Esfahani’s Proms 2011 performance of the Goldberg Variations

Alex Woolf

Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

My mum was performing in Les Miserables in the West End while I was in the womb, so I think music has always been somewhat inescapable! My parents have always broadened my experience of different types of music, and that, in effect, is what inspired me to try and make music of my own. It then seemed natural to me to want to write music down as soon as I’d started learning the piano. I guess it’s that classic scenario of neglecting scales practice in favour of making ‘nice sounds,’ and before I had the slightest idea what I was doing I was at least trying to write down my efforts!

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

I’m influenced by anyone whose music moves me in some way, where there’s a tangible relationship between the music that’s been created and its audience – it doesn’t matter what idiom they’re working in. For example, in the next fortnight I’m going to see the Madame Butterfly production at ENO and the Keane gig at Brixton Academy, both of which should offer that connection in equal measure.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I’ve just written a fanfare for the Royal Opera House orchestra with Pappano lasting 30 seconds, and I think it’s the brevity which made it so challenging. The material came quite quickly, but trying to grapple with a full orchestra over such a tiny amount of time, whilst also trying to make it memorable and special, really was a challenge!

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Whenever a group of musicians play my music it is a thrill and a pleasure, so I find it above all very exciting. I do get slightly stressed preparing scores for larger ensembles though – if you get one tiny detail in any of the parts wrong, if the score isn’t clear for the conductor, if there are any conflicting messages, then the rehearsal could be ruined!

Which recordings are you most proud of?

Last year my first substantial choral piece was recorded at Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge by Phoenix Chorale, and that recording is very special to me. It’s my first professional recording, and I learnt a huge amount from the process, and I am now in awe of people who specialise in production.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

I have three: Barbican, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and Snape Maltings Concert Hall. All absolutely beautiful, and I’ve had some unforgettable experiences at those places.

Who are your favourite musicians?

The members of the National Youth Orchestra that I’ve met over this past year are all absolutely incredible – it’s such a huge melting-pot of fantastic musicians that it would be impossible for me to say anything else!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Oh, there are so many! Something that springs to mind immediately though is Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys at ENO last year, which I found absolutely spell-binding both musically and visually.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

At the minute I’m really into playing the Beethoven sonatas on piano – they’re so physical and explosive. I’m listening to lots of Thomas Adès and James Macmillan. I think what links everything I’m into at the minute is these really powerful ideas which just grab hold of you. Pieces like Adès’ America: A Prophecy or MacMillan’s Magnificat grab me every single time I hear them.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

I still am an aspiring musician! Having said that, I can’t think of a time when I won’t see myself as aspirant musically. Maybe what I would say then is that a thirst and desire to constantly discover more about the art form is the most important thing of all.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a piece for the Aldeburgh World Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder at the minute, which is really exciting! It’s quite tricky, because I’ve got to create 2 versions of the same piece, one for indoor concert performance and one outdoor, unconducted version for the Olympic torch relay. It’s a great challenge though!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness for me is simply to have achievements to be proud of, new challenges to look forward to, and great people to enjoy them with.

Twitter: @alexanderwoolf

Alex lives in Cambridge, and is a composer with the National Youth Orchestra and an Aldeburgh Young Musician. In the last year, his music has been performed at venues such as the Southbank Centre, the Sage Gateshead and the Britten Studio, as well as in Holland. In June this year his Fanfare will be premièred by Sir Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra, and will be heard as an alternative to the interval bell at each opera/ballet of the 2012/13 season. His choral work Phoenix was recorded in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge last year, and his music will feature at this year’s Snape Proms, as the Aldeburgh World Orchestra première a new piece to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. He studies with Jeffery Wilson, and also receives tuition from Anna Meredith, Larry Goves and Charlotte Bray. He is winner of Cambridge Young Composer of the Year and the NCEM Young Composers Award 2012. His NCEM competition piece is being sung by the Tallis Scholars as part of a Jubilee Concert at Durham Cathedral on 2nd June (further information here).

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?

My grandfather was a coal miner who loved music. He encouraged me to get involved. He and my mum talked music a lot, and I gradually began to find out about composers. From the first day I picked up an instrument I knew I wanted to be a composer, although at that stage I did not know what that would mean.

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

As a young boy it was Beethoven and Wagner. Later it was the great contrapuntalists like Palestrina and Bach who taught me about complexity. In the 20th century it was my fellow Catholic Messiaen.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I have never thought of it as a career. I have a wide range of interests, including politics, which sometime impinge directly on my work. Being a ‘public figure’ in Scotland can bring unwelcome aggression, and while it may have nothing to do with music, it can’t help interfere with my life and work sometimes.

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I am pleased with all the recordings I have made but I only regard them as a secondary activity to composing. I am usually most absorbed in the most recent works, which are a new orchestral work for Marin Alsop, a setting of the Credo for this year’s BBC Proms and a new work for the Edinburgh Festival.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have a special admiration for choirs, and especially those choirs which have children on the top line, producing music of the highest quality and complexity. Therefore some of the British ‘church’ choirs like Westminster Cathedral and King’s College Cambridge, who have sung my music recently, are near the top of my list.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Conducting my St John Passion in Copenhagen, Brussels and Liverpool.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers?

They should learn how to handle complexity – study Palestrina and Bach!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished a brass band piece for Black Dyke Mills, and I have now embarked on a setting of the St Luke Passion.

What is your most treasured possession?

An actual relic of Blessed John Henry Newman.

What is your present state of mind?

Fulfilled and chilled!


James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin, and his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

James MacMillan at Boosey & Hawkes