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

Who or what inspired you to take up composing?

When I started learning piano I quickly found that improvising around the pieces I was learning was far more fun than practising scales! Quite soon after that, I realised I could begin to write these inventions down (inspired at first by an ardent desire to acquire a Blue Peter badge…!).

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

Recently I’ve been especially inspired by composers who have an outward-facing, collaborative approach to their craft. Composers like Nico Muhly epitomise this for me: not only is the music totally brilliant, but it’s made for people, not just the instruments they play.

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

This past year I’ve been writing for the London Symphony Orchestra as one of their Panufnik Composers – this has certainly been a huge challenge, exciting and daunting in equal measure! Having the whole orchestra (under the baton of François-Xavier Roth) at my fingertips was an incredible feeling, but attempting to write not just a good overall piece but also great parts for all 80 phenomenal musicians certainly took a lot of careful balancing!

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

It’s the biggest thrill of the process, BUT sharing music that you’ve been living with potentially for months for the first time is a daunting thing! A player’s relationship with the thing you’ve made is so different to your own, which is why I obsess over how parts look! Most performers won’t be religiously studying your score for weeks on end; they’ll be getting under the skin of the notes you’ve written for them, so it’s critically important that what they see is presented perfectly!

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

My music is built out of a core I would describe as essentially emotional. I will never shy away from that word (which is often lazily conflated with ‘sentimental’) – I can’t imagine wanting to spend my life writing music if I didn’t want to move, surprise, excite, provoke people, and I’m obsessed with finding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ways of aspiring to do just that. The Requiem that I’ve just written for Laura van der Heijden, Nicky Spence and a fantastic choir that I’ve put together is, in part, a kind of manifesto for everything I love about music. It’s my biggest work to date, and I’ve designed it in such a way as to (hopefully) crystallise the main things which make up my musical voice.

How do you work?

I work in very intense periods where a lot seems to happen very quickly! But of course this is only part of the process… I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ‘pre-composition’ – once an idea is floating around in my head, I find it very

difficult to ignore, and it’s constantly evolving, shifting, forming… When these ideas get onto paper, the process has already begun (and a long night at my desk usually follows…)

Of which works are you most proud?

The works of which I’m most proud are the ones where I haven’t felt any pressure to make them something they’re not, or self-consciously ‘new’. One of my favourite Stephen Sondheim quotes is ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you, / Then it will be new’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

My favourite venues and spaces make you feel like the music is happening to you, however big or small they are – but this has a lot to do with the performance too…

Who are your favourite musicians?

The musicians I’m most inspired by are those for whom the notes they play are only the tip of the iceberg – musicians who are obsessively curious, who understand why the music they’re playing exists, and who can make you hear familiar music as if it were completely new.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2017 The Bach Choir performed my carol ‘Nowell’ at Cadogan Hall; there was some very specific choreography at the event which meant that I watched the premiere from onstage, facing sideways, so I was able to take in not only the choir but the full audience as well. This turned an already exciting moment into an electrifying one: it felt like a kind of arena, with 100 voices at the centre… what could be better?!

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

My Spotify history at any given moment is a completely bizarre and eclectic mix of music – musical theatre has an extremely special place in my life, and I still can’t beat it for listening to on the go. At the moment I’m trying to discover as much new choral music as possible. I love finding music I’ve never even remotely heard of; those are the most exciting listening moments for me. In terms of playing, I love anything that gets me performing with other musicians – I love accompanying, and recently I’ve been able to delve deep into the french horn repertoire for an upcoming recital at Buxton Festival with Alexei Watkins.

As a musician, how do you define “success”?

If I’ve made something that nobody else could have made in exactly the same way, and which the performers really want to own, I’ve succeeded. The rest is largely beyond my control!

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

Be polite; be punctual; be proactive. The rest will follow!

The World Premiere of Alex Woolf’s Fairfield Fanfare will take place on Wednesday 18th September 7.30pm as part of the Fairfield Halls gala reopening concert with the London Mozart Players:

https://www.fairfield.co.uk/whats-on/london-mozart-players-fairfield-halls-gala-opening-concert/

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