by Mahan Esfahani November 9th, 2009


Reflections in Amsterdam

I’m just getting ready to leave Amsterdam in a few hours to get back to London. I’ve been here for sessions with the respected photographer Marco Borggreve to produce a set of ‘publicity shots’ appropriate for programmes, album covers and inserts, and other uses. It is a rather poignant experience to be writing this blog entry for the Borletti-Buitoni Trust in the city on the Amstel, a place that over the years I have visited throughout various stages of my life.

When I first visited Amsterdam during holidays in my second year at university, I wasn’t even really sure back then whether music was the right profession for me. I was studying music history and theory at the time at school, and was fairly serious about my instrumental studies, but the experiences of this visit, during my first serious trip by myself throughout Europe (in the time-honoured tradition of student ‘back-packing’) were intimidating in so many ways! The musical scene in Europe looked so vibrant, so different, and the audiences seemed particularly well-disposed to Baroque and Renaissance music and to the harpsichord, particularly in the Netherlands but also throughout the other countries I had trekked through. I remember going to a number of concerts that summer – a recital of Beethoven sonatas with Pieter Wispelwey at the ‘cello and Dejan Lazic at the piano particularly sticks out in my mind as an event in which my mind began to stir to taking stock of what I should do in life. I had a pocket score of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti in my rucksack which was well-thumbed and marked up throughout my journeys; to this was eventually added a battered pocket score of the Well-Tempered Clavier, covered in my notes and analyses of the fugues. In the back of my mind, I dreamt about having the opportunity to really share these pieces with people other than myself, but I didn’t really believe that it ever would be possible.

The second time I visited Amsterdam I had just left university that June and was pursuing further private studies at the harpsichord and other early keyboard instruments in order to try to figure out what I was going to do with my life. These were difficult times and I was probably even a bit depressed back then. It’s a wonder I didn’t drop everything and go and do something else or more ‘useful.’ The dreams ignited on the previous trip had made the acquaintance of reality, and the meeting was not altogether happy. Bach’s music was a source of strength to me in that time, as I read about him over and over again, and studied his Partitas and second part of the Well-Tempered Clavier very closely. I was performing to some extent back in the States, but I didn’t feel like I had a future that could sustain me either artistically or practically. I remember making a list on an Intercity train once, and drawing up what I called the ‘ideal month’ – a week playing solo recitals on the harpsichord, a week of involvement with operatic or Passion repertoire, a week of research, a week of modern music and new commissions and dedication to the music of our time. Sighing, I tucked this into my notebook, thinking that it would never happen! When I returned from this trip, I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed to either go somewhere where I was a ‘real person,’ or that I should go and do something else.

About three years passed between the second and the present visit (my third). A great deal has happened in those three years. To make an exceedingly long story short, one particular recital in the States got me to Europe through the notice of a well-known conductor who needed an assistant for a few opera projects. This led to some rather key recitals with certain people in the audience, which led to an organ scholarship in Milan (I also have a great interest in historic organs and their respective repertoires), which eventually led to a visit to London that culminated in my being asked to be a BBC New Generation Artist, the first musician in historical performance asked to do so. At this same time, I was invited to take up the position of Artist-in-Residence at New College, Oxford, and now I call the United Kingdom my home. My activities with the BBC reflect my dreams that I scribbled into that notebook, that little sheet of ‘the ideal week’ that I wrote on the train between Paris and Amsterdam three years ago. Since August alone (to say nothing of last year’s activities), I have played with New Generation Artist colleagues at the Proms, in music ranging from Haydn lieder at the fortepiano to Martinu’s (yes, Martinu!) Promenades, have recorded a recital of works of J.S. Bach at Wigmore Hall (where I made my debut as concerto soloist with The English Concert last season), have recorded a recital on an Aubertin French Baroque-style organ at St. John’s College in Oxford, appeared with the BBC Scottish Symphony as soloist in Francis Poulenc’s Concert champetre (1928) – and these are only the activities that I can remember! And the moment I get back to Oxford, I have to prepare a couple of recitals for November and get ready to record a recital of Rameau, Louis Couperin, and others on the 1636 Ruckers-Hemsch at the Cobbe Collection in Surrey. As a beautiful side-note, the day I arrived in Amsterdam saw a wonderful occurrence – I received a call that very morning informing me that I have just been offered general management with a notable international music management agency. And this is, as they say, just the beginning. I’m happy not because of having more recognition but because I finally have the forum to say what I wish to say as a musician – think of it as a growing ‘soap-box,’ if you will. And that is the really the most exciting and rewarding thing for me.

The Borletti-Butioni Trust has made two very important things available to me: the first opportunity is in the form of a source of financial support to help establish a career above the fray of a hand-to-mouth existence and the worries of the natural ‘ups and downs’ of a young career. By using the generous grant to produce a short film about this rather ‘different’ instrument I have chosen to dedicate my life to, it is allowing me to expose my instrument and this wonderful music to as many people as possible and take advantage of the remarkable revolution in communications that has happened in the last decade. The second gift of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust is no less important; perhaps it is the most important aspect of this remarkable organisation! Since being honoured by the Trust, I have come into contact with people who have proven to be a source of advice, support, encouragement, and genuine interest in helping me in the relatively early days of my career. I feel like I can ask members of the Borletti-Buitoni team – Susan Rivers, David Hoskins, Debra Boraston – anything, and really anything! They have been responsible for my meeting someone who will be a great colleague (the recorder virtuoso Erik Bosgraaf), and more recently, were responsible for introducing me to my new agents. And, on a lighter note, they haven’t even been afraid to play in loco parentis when I need it most as someone who is alone in a new country and a new artistic scene – goodness knows sometimes I need it. I could write more, but it’s time to catch the tram back to the station, the same tram that brought me into a town when I was just dreaming about all that is happening. I suppose you could say that this is still a story in the making.