Noisy dissent disrupts a harpsichord recital

Noisy dissent disrupts a harpsichord recital


norman lebrecht

February 29, 2016

The international virtuoso Mahan Esfahani faced what may be the first recorded riot at a harpsichord recital yesterday when a conservative Cologne audience objected to him playing Steve Reich on a baroque intrument.

Mahan tells Slipped Disc:


mahan concert riot


As we know, the life of a soloist is mostly a string of “concerts played and meals eaten” with the odd inside joke and run-in with the law (well, at least in my case). Yesterday’s experience started with the comic, transmuted into the tragic, and concluded on a sort of lovely note.

The concert was with Concerto Köln; we’ve recorded together in the past and decided to perform a couple of the things that we’ve done on disc as well as a concerto by Emanuel Bach and other stray bits and pieces. I was particularly excited to play on the hall’s own harpsichord built by the German maker Burkhard Zander – a really magnificent copy of the 1745 Dulcken that surely is one of the best on the Continent. In the second half, I played – or, rather, intended to play – Steve Reich’s ‘Piano Phase,’ which I perform in a version approved by the composer wherein I play ‘against’ myself, the latter being a pre-recorded track of the first keyboard part. I’ve performed this to acclaim to a variety of audiences and have found that for even the most hard-hearted opponents of modern music, it comes across as an accessible and even ‘fun’ piece. It’s not even all that modern – it’ll turn 50 years old next year!

I should perhaps emphasise here that I was participating in what is a sort of cultural institution in many German cities: the Sunday afternoon concert. This is the concert where typically older members of the educated middle class have their subscription tickets for years and go to hear the requisite amount of pleasant music in ‘their’ Philharmonie. I figured that we were more or less giving them that. And yet…

Within about three or four minutes of the piece, I started hearing clapping. Since I have to wear monitoring headphones during the piece, I couldn’t hear the public very well, but this became quite obvious to me as it was fairly loud enough. I figured that maybe they liked the piece, and I felt encouraged and continued. Another minute went by, and there were rather audible catcalls and hisses and even a bit of yelling here and there. I continued for about another three minutes until it became unbearable, with obvious different factions yelling each other down.

I stopped in the middle of the piece and took my headphones off; the hall at this point was more or less in pandemonium on a scale that I’ve never seen in a concert hall for classical music. I fortunately had a microphone on stage and decided that, well, it was time to use it.

“What are you afraid of?” – this was my first question. I’m not quite sure what took over me, but I was relatively calm as I reflected on the fact that in the country of my origin, concerts are cancelled or banned for minuscule reasons by adherents of a regime that holds deep-set suspicions about music or indeed any art that reflects anything other than mourning. In so many words, I told this to the audience.

The atmosphere was tense but totally fascinating to witness. Most of the people who walked out or catcalled tended to be older men who clearly felt some sort of anger about having to listen to this piece. They were being shouted down by younger people – mostly women, in fact. A few people were crying. Anyhow, there was a bit of back and forth, and I finally said: “we’re going to proceed with the concerto by C.P.E. Bach.”

At the end of the concert, the applause was pretty intense as it was gripping. Then – most unexpected of unexpected scenarios! – a man decided to run down the aisle and ask for the microphone (as it turns out, he wasn’t management, but rather a member of the audience). He gave a really wonderful response to the ‘protestors’ (if we can call them that). I can’t quite remember what he said, but he said how sorry he was for what happened – again, to endless rounds of applause. There was a funny few minutes of a sort of ‘open mic’ situation, with people calling out their sentiments about that afternoon’s events. The level of support, the number of people standing up – well, it was all terribly exhilarating. And pretty much for the rest of the evening I ran into people at bars and pubs who came up and told me how they felt about what happened. There was the invariable apology – but this is not necessary! They should be glad to live in a city wherein people participate so actively in culture.

I really hate to engage in a reductio ad ISISam, to coin a phrase, but I should like to reflect on something which bears consideration. There are people in the world who want to completely destroy culture. Culture! Can you believe this? Culture doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t stab or kill or behead anyone. And yet, it disturbs them so much to the depths of their souls that they want to stamp it out. Now, I’m not saying that yesterday’s very naughty individuals have some sort of equivalency to that level of evil, but it would do them good to consider that music will die if we are not active participants in seeing music change and challenge us. In that sense, I’m not a performer and you are not listeners. We are all responsible for making sure that music is never in a state of inertia. There is no such thing as a static definition of ‘good’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘correct.’ The sort of people who talk about this as though it were heaven tend to be those who make hell on Earth.

Look, I’m used to opprobrium on a variety of levels, and over time I’ve had to develop a pretty thick exoskeleton. There’s of course the whole being-a-harpsichordist thing and the sort of idiocy that passes for discourse from that, especially from people who don’t realise that you can’t be against something if you don’t understand it. Fine. Then there are the various (involuntary) clashes with the harpsichord establishment and their ever-dwindling number of record buyers who resent anyone who tries to even speak to the mainstream. There’s been the odd critic with a vendetta. This is all fine, and as Hyman Roth quipped, “this is the life we’ve chosen.” But I most certainly haven’t had that sort of hostility from members of the audience in a concert setting.

I learnt a few things from this and reflected on them during a night of complete sleeplessness:

Some people are jerks;
Some people have fear and express it through hostility;
Some people are annoyed when they don’t understand something immediately off the bat, and therefore develop fear. See no. 2 in order to find out how that develops.
For all the talk about fusty ‘old people’ keeping classical music back, the overwhelming support against yesterday’s detractors came from people from a variety of ages and backgrounds. So, I realised the truth of that funny rude proverb they say about what happens when you make assumptions.

I’m also fairly sure that the harpsichord has never been in a situation which has inspired total order breaking down in a concert hall. For me, that’s indescribably awesome. If this instrument can inspire opinions, then we are on to something. Of course, I wish people would express themselves in more respectful ways, but who am I to judge? My brain hurts to think what would have transpired had I played something really new.


(c) Mahan Esfahani
(Cologne/Bonn airport, 9am Monday morning)

TAKE TWO: A cellist describes the riot here.

TAKE 3: Cologne offers an apology.


  • Student says:

    Wonderfully written and inspiring story! Thank you!

    • joey says:

      That piece is a piece of crap. I’d be yelling STOP! The audience was expecting music, not THAT on a beautiful instrument. NOT politics, just CRAP music. Great music for that instrument is no longer written, not for the last 100 years, or more!

      • Shodan says:

        Sadly for all the snobs, this piece is an authentic MUSICAL experiment, and academic musicians understand it, thats the reason they want to play it, it’s amazing.

      • Mon Coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

        Don’t forget Ross Bagdasarian. Truth is, the harpsichord presents a certain timbre, and the modern esthetic is to employ the means that will convey the sound the composer envisions. Speaking of “the eye of the beholder”, would the male protester have walked out of a Charlotte Moorman recital (she of blessed memory), she playing Nam June Paik on her abused cello? Or would her nakedness have detained him?

  • Eddie Mars says:

    What disgraceful and uneducated behaviour :(( Disrupting a performance because they don’t like (or can’t deal with) the music is utterly unacceptable. The program was announced in advance, and if they didn’t want to hear it, they should have stayed at home.

    But of course, Cologne is a centre for Pegida support, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they behave this way at concerts.

    • May says:

      Eddie, leave Pegida out of the discussion. Pegida doesn’t have large support in Cologne. Don’t confuse Pegida with the AfD, which as the case in all German cities is, has a sizeable block of voters behind them. Don’t believe everything that the Martian media is feeding you. Just because a couple of idiots in a country called Germany disturbed a concert doesn’t mean that Pegida was behind it. The Martian media wants you to think that but in the end, they were just idiots.

      • J. S. says:

        Pegida = AfD = NPD. They are all the same: the lowest racist scum in germany.

        • May says:

          I see the Martian media has also successfully indoctrinated you as well. You should educated yourself.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          What you and other name-calling bullies fail to understand is the reason for the rise of groups like Pegida. There are many millions of people out there who don’t like your enforced migration politics and political correctness and no amount of abuse is going to stop them having their say and expressing their resentment for being excluded from the politics. You won’t shut people up by bullying; better to address the root cause of their concerns, which are legitimate, not exclusive to Germany and not likely to be silenced by you. These people were never consulted about your social engineering programs in the first place, so who are the authoritarians here?

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Very nice. Where did you cut-paste that from?

          • pooroperaman says:

            Hear, hear.

          • Gene in L.A. says:

            As an American it does me good to read this thread of comments and realize we’re not the only place where people inject their politics into subjects that have nothing to do with them. This was about a Sunday afternoon concert, but some of you see it as symptoms of your pet political peeve. It’s really too bad. Not everything in life has to do with politics. Sometimes it’s really nice just to shut up and listen to some music.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      Not that tired old chestnut about Pegida, again!!! Some people cling onto the Martian media because it tells them what they WANT and NEED to hear. Sad.

    • Michael says:

      From my perspective, (I was there and sat in the very middle behind the sound mix area) the comment regarding a Pegida conspiracy is absurd. I observed a din of discussion – I’d guess maybe a hundred talkers and whisperers – as background noise that started a few minutes into the piece, then claps after a few more minutes until some people way up in the oxygen section started shouting. I can only guess as to their motivation but this behaviour, in this context, is just simply unacceptable – it is just bad behaviour. But that’s just me; I don’t like people talking during the movies, or slashing paintings they don’t like either…

    • Marc Weber says:

      Cologne isn´t the center of PEGIDA. Dresden is. Cologne is in the far west. Dresden is in the far east. More then 550 kilometers inbetween.
      In fact Cologne has the image of one of the most liberal cities in Germany, with a tradition of making a stand against racism for decades. Several attempts of demonstrations or rallies of right extremists in the last years have been canceled because they were outnumbered by tens of thousands of demonstrators against them.

      Sure racists, jerks and idiots are everywhere, but this has nothing to do with PEGIDA or racism. You won´t find a PEGIDA supporter anywhere near a concerthall.
      This has something to do with self righteous, conservative snobs, who wanted to have an ear-pleasing Sunday afternoon concert, spoon fed like the coffee and cake they enjoyed before the concert.

    • C says:

      What you say about Cologne is complete nonsense.
      One thing Cologne is NOT is a centre for Pegida support.

      What happened is still embarrassing however-especially since Cologne audiences are generally very appreciative of most things served up to them. To the point of indiscriminately so. They’ll applaud for most everything.

      Very rude and embarrassing, what happend and rather a-typical for cologne.

  • Stay Classy, Köln says:

    Reports from audience members include a detail the artist may have missed — while introducing the piece, audience members started yelling “Speak German!” in the (in this context) disrespectful Du form. This audience was yearning for Reich, all right — the Third one.

    • Michael says:

      That is inaccurate, during his description of the piece there was only a sympathetic sigh when he said he he would describe it in English and that he could talk better German afterwards after a couple of beers in the pub. The “Deutsch” shouts started when the gentleman from the audience took to the microphone to express apology for the unacceptable behaviour of some members of the audience. This was some time after other audience members were prevented by this small loud mob from hearing the performance of this beautiful piece.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      There can be no excuse for this kind of disruption at a concert. Political protests need to be conducted outside in the public square.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    There is another situation: some people are annoyed just because they abhor minimalist pop music. Don’t call me names like “bigot” etc. I am just pointing to the fact that Reich, Glass and others are not appreciated by all the Classical public, as a matter of fact they fit best in the old Studio 54, not in the Köln Philharmonie, at least when the public is expecting to listen to music by C.P.E. Bach.

    • Halldor says:

      But they bought tickets to hear a concert that was advertised as containing Steve Reich. Did they do so with the intention of disrupting it? Or were they just subscription holders who show up to concerts without reading programmes? Even so: you’d think they’d understand basic courtesy.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        In the 60’s there were several music groups playing “early music” in a time-typical way, the concerts consisted of a pout-pourri of everything from troubadour songs to early Monteverdi, all played with the same “sound-producing-means”. Maybe Mr. Esfahani has a similar problem with Western classical music (for sure not his fault, that misconception is very common, especially in the pop minimalist public). I can understand a protest like that if done by a subscription holder.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          And your point is (if any)?

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            My point is: Appeals to decorum are valid only if mutual (the public does not have to accept everything), and a protest can be a healthy sign in cultural matters. In fact, there should be more reactions to cultural vandalism; the classical public has become too passive, or “civilized” in a bad sense. The example of early music groups in the 60’s was after some reflection criptical: accompanying a troubadour song and a Monteverdi madrigal with the same fiddle is ridiculous by today’s standards but in their time they were meant good. Mixing HIP performances of XVIII Century music and minimalist pop can look like a similar naivety (that’s all “early music”, that’s all “Western classical music”) but it is in a sense a cultural destructive act and it is good that a well-educated public as I suppose was the case reacts with disapproval. It is also likely that Mr. Esfahani’s performance was a premeditated provocation (in that case he was quite successful). I don’t mean that it should be forbidden to play minimalist pop in a baroque cembalo, just it is performed in a concert of minimalist pop.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Perhaps you missed the point that the composer has specifically authorised the transcription for harpsichord?

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            I have also listened to an ”authorized” version for 2 lutes, for the composer everything goes, my point is that the public has all right to consider that brainwashing arrangement of sounds an act of cultural vandalism, and react. In the meantime, I came to another digression (the last one in this issue, I promise), that if you listen concentrated to Piano Phase as if it was serious music it resonates in your brain long after, the next piece is like playing, say, a Beethoven sonata and, at a low volume, Piano Phase, simultaneously in 2 disc players. Maybe the protesters in the public had the same feeling, that their brains were being insulted. Self defence.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It seems likely that those protesting audience members did not know of Reich but thought: well, it’s a harpsichord recital so it can’t be that bad.

      • Halldor says:

        Do I understand you correctly. Pianofortissimo: Reich’s music is “pop” and mixing it with music from the baroque period can only be a “provocation” – a “destructive act”? I don’t know where to begin with such a perspective, except to ask you at least to consider that music outside of mainstream genres (although pretty much everyone in the classical world would now accept Reich’s 50-year old work as established) can possess merit, and that performing music of different periods together can be eloquent, illuminating and intellectually and emotionally fruitful. Reich’s debt to the baroque tradition must surely be audible to anyone who listens without prejudice.

        I know Mr Esfahani only through conversations online but I rather suspect he believes (and from an a level of artistic insight and experience that I doubt any of us can equal) that there is no such thing as “pop”, “baroque”, “minimalist”, or “classical” music – only “good music”. But you don’t have to agree with that to be repelled by the idea that all music has to be classified by period and style and shunted into ghettos – and that any attempt to break out of this mentality constitutes so strong a “provocation” that it justifies disrupting a concert.

      • I very much agree with you here. Steve Reich was sited on the program. May be this so “called educated audience” did not know who Steve Reich was. Anyway, this rude behavior was certainly very well thought out before the concert by hooligans, not educated Germans. I am German and from Berlin. Never would I tolerate such behavior.

        • Michael says:

          In my opinion, that is exactly the point.

          If you don’t like the music, quietly excuse yourself and go away and ask for your money back. Have a minimum of respect and do not take it upon yourself or employ the help of a mob to censure my listening experience. This was now two days ago but I still find this experience uniquely and unforgettably disturbing. Thank you, but we don’t need this type of censorship no matter what your personal position on minimalism is.

        • Michael says:

          My comment here ended in the wrong thread and should be a response to HALLDOR in the same forum.

    • Lumping all performances of all music from an era is indeed bigotry. I am an Historically Informed aficionado (four harpsichords in my residence), but I have enjoyed and produced concerts with multi-century leaps including premiers of wet-ink compositions for harpsichord and fortepiano pieces played on a Steinway D.

      I am a vociferous critic of most multi-media and do not choose to attend any music involving PA system. I will agree that most efforts at combining art forms and genres come off as poor pastiches, but it can and has been done well and I am at least polite to performers and other audience members who may be enjoying what I find annoying.

      Music is often called the Universal Language, and musicks from all eras and cultures are being combined into new DNA. I seek new music and even though I deplore novelty for novelties’ sake, it is necessary to find new truths and should be encouraged.

  • Dirk Fischer says:

    To be honest, I find the self-centeredness and the amount of assumptions on part of Esfehani quite disturbing.

    • Michael says:

      Maybe you weren’t there I can assure you that whatever you feel about him this mob was absolutely intolerable, vulgar, just idiotic – is this what we can look forward to?

      • Dirk Fischer says:

        I was commenting on Mahani’s report, which is full of assumptions and uncertainties, and not on him as a person. I haven’t got a clue what you mean with “look forward to”. There are thousands of concerts in Germany every day, without any such hiccups. Don’t try to generate fear when there is no ground.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          So Esfahani was there – yet his report is full of ‘uncertainties. But although you were *not* there, you are 100% certain of what happened?

        • Michael says:

          Forgive me Mr Fischer for not having been able to ascertain that from your one-sentence comment and thank you for your reply. My intention was not, by any means, to “spread fear” – via a classical music forum… Rather I simply wanted to ask if this type of unacceptable behaviour could become the new normal for concert-goers.

          • Dirk Fischer says:

            Dear Michael, of course nobody wishes this behaviour to become normal. However, as I said before, there is no reason to believe it would. One incident in thousands of concerts should not be alarming.

  • Paolo V Montanari says:

    I hate minimal music. But the piece is 49 years old and really famous and I am sure the programme was clearly advertised. Why can’t these catcallers understand that other audience members are expecting to have what they payed for and don’t care about their opinion? Dissent is a vital part of live music making but only after the end of the performance.

  • Angela Beaumont says:

    Quite extraordinary. I was at your concert in Aldeburgh Church in 2014 where the audience was mostly late to middle-aged, middle-class and conservative and your performance of ligeti’s passacaglia ungherese was received with incredible warmth and enthusiasm. I was thrilled by it (despite having concerns for the health of the instrument!).

    The most recent of your concerts I attended was at the Harrogate Festival last year where, despite a sparkling performance (in a freezing, cavernous church), the audience (mostly subscription) was tepid in the extreme.

    Which goes to show that it’s difficult to judge a reaction, but one as extreme as Cologne is mystifying.

    Please don’t stop pushing the harpsichord to its limits. Your performances are extraordinary.

    I do hope you played the Reich again as an encore!

  • Violinjo says:

    A musician of the ensemble “Concerto Köln” witnessed, ( and posted an according comment on FB) that the interruption was caused not by objections against modern music, but by a person yelling ” SPEAK GERMAN ! ” at Mr. Esfahani that later started “clapping down” his performance. The reaction of Mr. Esfahani was obviously made under the assumption ( due to the use of the headphones while the disruption was made ) that some members of the audience would protest against the modernness of the piece. according to the report , an embarrassed member of the audience later apologized for the disruption and stated that the majority of the listeners would have loved to hear the piece.

  • John Borstlap says:

    This story clearly demonstrates how ideology destroys common sense and aesthetic insight in performers’ minds – in case they were present in the first place. ‘Piano phase’ is a lousy, mechanical, and aesthetically and musically very poor piece, it has nothing to offer but a perception trick – it is very primitive, and an obvious exhibit of regression compared to CPE Bach:

    So, if audiences don’t like it and protest against something as indigestible and primitive as this superficial fabrication, which seems to have been an intrusion into an otherwise normal recital programme, the clichée of the protesters being conservative etc. etc. is drawn from the magic hat of postwar modernism. Protesting audiences means, the thing they protest against, must therefore be a great piece…. they should be grateful that they are not living in a totalitarian country, etc. etc. which is completely bananas in the context.

    Interesting: the story is another demonstration that there is a fundamental difference between ‘culture’ and ‘modernity’.

    The performer shows that he has assimilated Western society’s misconceptions, but not its culture. He must be very happy that he has created a ‘scandal’.

    • Halldor says:

      Oh, Mr Borstlap, you just get better and better. Please, don’t ever change.

    • Dirk Fischer says:

      I don’t agree with your analysis of Reich’s piece, however I do think you have a good point. Why is it acceptable for artists to “stir up” an audience, but it is not acceptable for audiences to disagree? I find it rather disrespectful to think one’s audience has certain deficiencies – if anything at all, any artist who wishes to make a point, would welcome the interaction instead of trying to talk it down.

      • John Borstlap says:


      • Graeme Hall says:

        By all means disagree – but not during the performance. What about showing some manners? Not simply to the performer but to those members of the audience who did want to hear the work in question. If I go to a concert to hear a particular piece of music why should my enjoyment be spoiled by people who don’t like it? Sit patiently, quietly, go out if you really can’t stand it, don’t applaud. But why should you choose to spoil the pleasure of others?

        • John Borstlap says:

          That is also true. One should bottle-up once’s disapproval or irritation or anger.

          Once I attended an opera production (of a modern work) in Düsseldorf where the audience was calmly absorbing the spectacle, seemingly accepting the thing. To my great surprise, at the end the audience exploded into a roaring fit of disapproval that shook the building, with well-dressed middle-aged Düsseldorfers running amok in the pathways and at the railings of balconies. It was quite stunning to see a perfectly-behaved haute-bourgeois situation suddenly turning into a zoo. So, this was an example of very polite behavior.

        • Dirk Fischer says:

          Graeme – that, of course, is very true.

        • MWnyc says:

          I wouldn’t limit it to not applauding. Audiences have the right to boo, hiss, and/or whistle – that’s no different from clapping and cheering, and people who applaud shouldn’t let the disagreement of others affect their own enjoyment.

          But none of this should happen during the music. Disrupting the performance is off limits. There’s already a designated time for the audience to register its reaction to a performance, whatever that reaction may be.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          Absolutely agree! Take your protests outside the venue – before during or after. Doesn’t seem like much to ask, does it!!

    • AnnaT says:

      Yes, one often sees in the Slipped Disc comment section the extent to which ideology destroys common sense.

    • James McCarty says:

      Bravo, John! Thank you for your usual contribution of common sense.

  • Douglas says:

    It would be interesting to read an eyewitness account of this concert from 1) someone who speaks good German, and 2) someone who is not trying to capitalize on the event to enhance his or her own reputation. It is not clear exactly what happened and why.

    Personally I think that it is courteous to address an audience in their own language if at all possible. As Mr Esfahani (who is actually American) speaks some German, it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to prepare some written notes, with the help of a colleague, and to read them out loud in German, out of respect for the audience.

    • Andreas says:

      Having been there and being German, I might qualify?
      Before playing Reich, Mr Esfahani announced some words on the piece in English, quite profusely apologizing for not doing this in German due to his weak command of the language. It seemed as if this was not just for explanatory purposes, but also to create a small break between two quite demanding pieces (Reich was played directly after the Gorecki concerto). No hostile reaction of the audience at this time, but some applause.

      Then, during the Reich performance, an increasing number of disturbances (clapping, booing etc.). After stopping the performance, Esfahani took a short moment, then took the microphone and reacted con brio. Quite understandably, in English. Now just some members of the audience demanded “in Deutsch” (in German).

      The audience’s hostility, at least imho, was first directed towards the music and then extended towards the musician – them not only not understanding what was going on musically but also being left out language-wise? But I sincerely do doubt that this could have been helped at all.

      Furthermore, English being the lingua franca of this time and the audience mostly seeming to have above average education, they rather seemed to lack manners than language skills. The calls for “Sprich Deutsch” (in the very rude second singular), by the way, were repeated when the audience member addressed the hall after the concerto, also doing this in English.

      • Douglas says:

        Andreas, many thanks for sharing your account of the performance.

        Over the years, I’ve sat through some second- (or third-) rate pieces, and some awful performances, and once or twice I got up at the end of a piece and quietly left the hall. I agree that one shouldn’t disrupt a performance.

        On the other hand, if you are sitting in a hall watching a guy wearing headphones and playing to a recording of himself, and the piece is as inane as this “Piano Phase”, you might lose your normal civility.

        With the vast amount of very fine harpsichord repertoire to choose from, it seems that this piece was chosen to provoke, and that is what it did. I guess it served the principle of “all publicity is good publicity”.

        • Halldor says:

          The idea that performing a 50-year old masterpiece by one of the world’s pre-eminent living composers represents an intolerable “provocation” – hard know whether to laugh or cry at so timid, so blinkered, so pitiful a mentality.

          • Douglas says:

            There is good and bad music from all periods and genres. This piece by Steve Reich is not a masterpiece. It doesn’t hold a candle even to his “Music for 18 Musicians” and is frankly an embarrassment on a programme of this kind. Will it be played 200 years from now? Will it even be played 50 years from now? I sincerely doubt it.

            In any case, it is a kind of ‘music’ which can be performed equally well by computers as by human beings (indeed it stems from Steve Reich’s experiments with recorded sounds). No wonder that some people were upset that they went to the trouble of buying a ticket and travelling to a concert hall and found Piano Phase put up against something by CPE Bach.

            Still, it would have been better not to disrupt the ‘performance’.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            + 1

    • C R says:

      Actually, he does speak German and has done so to many audiences. His social media page clearly states that he didn’t feel comfortable explaining the techniques of phasing in the Reich in German; he prefaced this by apologizing to the audience.

      • Michael says:

        As a native English speaker who is also a fluent speaker of German, I can completely empathize with Mahan’s strategy for doing everything exactly the way he did:

        -explaining his German language limitations slowly (I am open to you, vulnerable, I am your guest, I am modest and dont want to commit bad mistakes in your language)
        -making a joke about meeting in the pub afterwards so he could speak better German after having drunk a couple beers – something Persians are not particularly well-known for… (I know Colognians are not averse to having a beer – let’s party later)
        – describing the Reich piece, (in oversimplified International English and well-paced for a non-native English speaking audience), describing what it would sound like if he were successful in making the phases syncopate (as far as I understood as a native speaker, non-music expert)

        He then began to set up and perform the beautiful piece.

        From my perspective, as someone who works in the field of cross-cultural communication professionally, the way he introduced and proceeded was absolutely spot-on for a concert-going audience in the context of the Kölner Philharmonie (in downtown Cologne!). For context: I am a former New Yorker who has lived in Köln since 1984. This behaviour is simply not Cologne. I was there and I continue to be absolutely disgusted! Please forgive my persistence and possible repetition.

  • Ben Hebbert says:

    This is the best musical event of the year so far!

    Whoever the people, whatever the minority, whatever their point of view, thank goodness that people can be passionate about music enough to cause a stir, and that both sides of this can exist. Even if the whole affair started innocently out of a deranged swivel-eyed loon demanding the performer speak German, it surely needs a spark to light a fire!

    I confess that I’m more restrained when I have to endure music that offends my idea of the trust between the audience and the performer. I normally resort to ostentatiously drawing cartoons with the intention of reducing the people around me into uncontrollable fits of laughter whilst I sit demurely and dispassionately in the middle of it all with a feigned look of mild confusion across my brow. I find this tactic even more effective for enduring academic papers, and more challenging to achieve on stage from the middle of an orchestra, but sometimes a bit of luck works wonders, and transforms to total magic if a wind player ends up in fits of giggles.

    But this is utterly brilliant! I hope we all find deeper insights into our response to music from reflecting on the Cologne event.

    • Michael says:

      NO, it is NOT the best event. A mob prevented me, and many others, from hearing a brilliant piece of music, that I had been waiting to hear live, by a brilliant artist playing it! What could be worse? A mob destroys beauty and when apologies to the artist are given in English the mob members shout “Deutsch! Deutsch!” This was the wierdest concert experience I have ever had – like being on another planet…

      • Ben Hebbert says:

        At the end of the day, it wasn’t just the swivel-eyed loon who started the thing, but the people who took sides, and after that the way that people choose to respond to the event from near and far, which allows for an interesting reflection on music and audiences – even if that is to say that what happened was totally repugnant.

        As a result I am quite envious of you for being there at the time. These things only happen spontaneously, and remarkably rarely (hence the legitimacy of comparison to the Rite of Spring because thats just about the last time in popular conscience that anything remotely like it happened). If the many discussions that follow this give you a stronger view of your relationship to music, you have won something from it – if simply just to reinforce your own view of the sanctity of music. Otherwise we can live through countless future performances without challenging why we are there. It may be decades before something like this happens again, which is why I am glad it happened. Not that I’d encourage that it ever should happen.

  • Milka says:

    It would be of interest to be apprised by someone who was there & hasn’t an ax to grind
    what truly went on at that concert .

  • James ingram says:

    Going to a live concert always involves the risk that you are not going to like what you hear (for whatever reason).
    But intolerance is intolerable. One should never destroy cultural artefacts, just because of one’s own beliefs or habits or cultural ignorance.
    Performers have a right to be treated with respect. Destroying a performance is a measure that is out of all proportion to not understanding a spoken introduction.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      Agree. Leave if you don’t like what’s on offer, or take your protests outside to the public square. The people inside have paid good money to enjoy the experience of the performance and they have a right to that.

  • Ben Hebbert says:

    Speaking more seriously, I agree with James Ingram, but accepting that a swivel-eyed loon decided to violate the concert by disrupting it with slow hand-clapping, the question is what happens next? Any protest, including presumably the riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, develops out of a single spark of discontent one way or another. How the audience reacts following that, how they feel permitted to behave once a performance has been interrupted, these are all interesting questions worthy of reflection.

  • Robert says:

    My own experience with English-speaking Europeans is that they do fine with everyday pleasantries and restaurant orders, but a discussion that reaches into the technical details of minimalist music performance… that is probably going to sound like gibberish to them.

    • squirrel says:

      My own experience with German speaking americans is that they can do fine ordering food on a menu, say, Wiener Schnitzel mit Pommes, but if you try to explain music theory to them, it will largely sound like gibberish.

      Your point however is that they weren’t saying “Sprich Deutsch” from a politically agitated standpoint, they were simply saying they wanted to understand him better ?

    • Ronny says:

      As a german, I must admit that your comment doesn’t sound like gibberish but rather like offending bullshit to me.

  • Milka says:

    If the description by Andreas is correct and it seems so , then what is all the brouhaha about . Mr Esfahani seems to have gotten a rude segment of the audience in a tiff.
    That the disrupting malcontents were not expelled from the hall so that the concert
    could go on without interruption is odd ….where were the managers of the event .?

    As for Mr. Esfahanis’ social observations he best stick to harpsichord playing

    • Nick says:

      It was obvious before the concert that Mr Esfahani intended to speak. Whatever the level of English skills in the audience, I am certain not all all would have been able to understand clearly Mr. Esfehani’s words. Why was no-one present to interpret? Where WERE the management? After he had stopped performing and again addressed the audience, he made matters worse by again having no interpreter. It is beyond my imagination that there was no-one involved in the presentation of the recital who could have done so. Did no member of Concerto Koln speak some English to help to translate?

      I totally agree with James Ingram (below) over the need for instant de-escalation. That said, I don’t approve of small sections of an audience disrupting concerts. However, it has been happening for many decades at institutions like La Scala. The claque is – or used to be – an institution there. And I have been at a performance at the Royal Opera when choruses of “Rubbish” were hurled quite regularly at the stage – and not only from the amphitheatre.

  • For me, the piece is predicated on the phasing between the recording and the live performance. PA type speakers have notoriously poor phase response, worse even than home “hifi” speakers. Further, the temporal and spatial projection of PA speakers is quite different than a harpsichord, especially when they are flown from the ceiling which is apparently the case. This means each audience member experiences an unique temporal and spatial distortion of the composer’s intent.

    I built what I believe are the only speakers designed and tested to match the temporal and spatial characteristics of a harpsichord. I don’t even know of any other speaker designers that have harpsichords in their living room. Proper performance of this configuration demands this level of acoustic concordance, the recordings are made with this symmetry and there is only bad historical precedents of speaker design criteria to prevent it live.

  • Fred Murgatroyd says:

    A very dignified and thoughtul response to what must’ve been a traumatic surprise! Keep up the great work Mahan.

  • James Ingram says:

    I think performers should usually play the pieces as advertised for the people who have paid to come to hear them.
    Ben Hebbert asks: So what should happen next?
    Maybe the best way to handle the situation is for the performer to leave the stage, and wait for the management to remove the trouble makers. (De-escalation is important, and the audience has no way to de-escalate the situation if there are determined disrupters.)
    There’s no way to completely repair such damage to a concert but maybe it can continue normally after a longish pause after everyone has calmed down.
    The Rite of Spring scandal (which was embedded in a completely different cultural context, and may even have been influenced by commercial considerations) is no excuse for repeating such disgraceful behaviour. Intolerance and cultural ignorance also lead to the First World War…

  • Tony Green says:

    Is it now culturally acceptable in the arts for some person or persons in an audience to destroy performances for the rest of the audience, on the basis of prejudice [and apparently even hatred] against whoever or whatever is identified as ‘modern’ or and then to defend such actions on the ground of freedom of expression of opinion on the supposedly free expression internet? And then blame the victim of this aggression, the performer, for provoking it, in order to profit from the ensuing scandal. It seems to me as alarming as the expression of prejudice and hatred against any identity category, as distinct from an actual person, whether that identity category is ethnic, gender, economic, or demographic, or subdivision of musical categories or instrumentation.

    • Michael says:

      Thanks Tony for your insight. It just seems like a dumbing down and lack of respect for what a musical performance is. A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Tosca at the Wiener Staatsoper. We booked great seats mittle loge for about €250 each. At the end seat there was a stage assistant with a free ticket literally coughing her head off through almost the entire performance before the usher ejected her (she should have been home in bed) and then a lady sitting in front of me started posting updated on her mobile phone facebook page phone glaring in our faces – this is all right in the middle of the performance. Let’s be real, these are like “rich people problems”; kids are being bombed every day. Still, we should be able to take a moment and concentrate on great music without censorship by people who, for whatever reason, think they can impose. Sadly, I suspect that many are not even aware of the imposition.

      • MWnyc says:

        Michael, please don’t confuse rudeness and inconsideration with censorship.

        People who use their smartphones or cough through a concert are not deliberately trying to keep you from being exposed to the music because they disapprove of that music’s message.

        They’re not thinking of you at all. That’s the problem.

        • Michael says:

          You are absolutely right – thank you. The Cologne “event” was very different but I am wondering where that line is…

  • Scott Fields says:

    As a foreign musician who lives in Cologne, my reaction to this disruption is that it has little to do with the piece being played and much to do with the ethnicity of the player. Even in Cologne, which is one of the most liberal cities in German, intolerance of foreigners is increasing. Of course it is ludicrous to expect touring musicians to speak French to French audiences, Danish to Danish audiences, and German to German audiences. The demand to “speak German” in the least respectful tense was meant as an attack on the Ausländer performer, not on the composer.

    On a more pleasant note, it was kind of Mr. Esfahani to praise the instrument and single out its builder, Burkhard Zander. For a year or two I lived in a loft that shared a wall with Mr. Zander’s workshop. His instruments are beautifully constructed and they sound fantastic. I looked forward to each instrument’s completion because that meant that regional harpsichordists would visit to give them a try and, soon before delivery, there would be a workshop concert.

    • Miles Golding says:

      “Of course it is ludicrous to expect touring musicians to speak French to French audiences, Danish to Danish audiences, and German to German audiences.”

      I’m not so sure. On an English Concert tour of Japan some time ago, trumpeter Mark Bennett organised, on a free day, a small ensemble from the band to play a short concert after a master-class that he delivered at a university a little way from Tokyo. I’m all for chatting to audiences, and, as leader of this ensemble, I thought it would be respectful to address them in Japanese. So I prepared something appropriate, asked a friend to translate it, transcribed it phonetically, learned it by heart, and duly delivered it. The audience loved it.

      I had not forgotten violinist Brian Smith’s tour de force, as chairman of the RPO, on a tour in Bulgaria in the 70s, doing a similar thing in Bulgarian – and it was significantly longer – all from memory, at one of the concerts.

      • Scott Fields says:

        Saying hi, how are you, pleased to be here is different than explainly the structure and presentation of a composition in a language you don’t speak well.

        • Miles Golding says:

          So it is.

        • Dirk Fischer says:

          Why would one feel the need to explain the structure and presentation of a composition to a (potentially) educated audience? I would be annoyed if someone took time to explain piano phase in a concert.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            I doubt you would understand it anyhow.

          • Dirk Fischer says:

            Not everything is how you assume, Eddie. If you googled my name, you might find out who I am. Already as a student, I worked with Steve Reich during a festival of his music. Just a month ago, I recorded violin phase in Berlin.

            What I find difficult to understand is why, on the one hand, people remark that the audience was aware of the programme (so should have known what they will get), but on the other hand it is felt necessary to educate them about the piece.

  • There’s a lot, that could be said, but most of all one thing: Thank you for your kind words.

    I wasn’t at the concert yesterday, I surely will be there, next year. Thank you for your kind words, thank you for your patience. Thanks for bearing with us.

  • Samantha C says:

    “Culture doesn’t hurt anyone.”

    Can you back up this eyebrow-raising assertion?

  • Kathleen Morris says:

    I’m with the old guys. They paid for the performance.

    lt is clear from his interview that Mahan Esfahani knew who was paying for the performance going in and that he feels nothing but disdain for “middle class old men” who want to hear some “pleasant music on a Sunday afternoon”.

    I find it hard to feel any sympathy for a performer who feels such disdain and dislike for his audience but is still willing to take their money.

    Hurrah for old guys like my dad and grandpa. They had the courage to speak up.

    • Scott Fields says:

      Ms. Morris, do you really mean hurrah for the xenophobes and racists? This wasn’t about Minimalism or contemporary music. The disturbance started before the (advertised and programmed) piece started, when the Iranian-born musician spoke in English. You also underestimate the sophistication of German audiences of all ages. I believe this was a planned protest by political reactionaries, not a spontaneous response to unexpected music.

      • Douglas says:

        Scott, what evidence do you have for your belief that this protest was a) planned, and b) undertaken by political reactionaries? We live in troubled times and if you are going to make such serious allegations, you should produce the evidence.

        • Scott Fields says:

          Although, producing evidence would be a novelty for the comments in this thread, my suspicion is based on talking to my fellow musicians here in Cologne about the incident, from years of performing difficult music for audiences of all ages in Germany, including performing, recently, a less audience-friendly Kagel piece last year in the same venue in a mixed program, of years of being an audience member in Germany, often in the same venue, and, as a foreigner (and a member of the most-persecuted group in German history), sensing increasing hostility to non-Germans.

          • Douglas says:

            Maybe your suppositions are correct. I was thousands of miles away and have absolutely no idea. However, a better theory – also with NO evidence to support it – is that the artist’s management or recording company engineered this disruption just for the publicity value. As so often in life, just follow the money . . .

      • Eddie Mars says:

        [[ I believe this was a planned protest by political reactionaries, not a spontaneous response to unexpected music ]]

        Preplanned and carried out at a pre-assigned moment in the program, with the intention of wrecking the performance – motivated by racial hatred.

    • Michael says:

      Can I ask you to let us know which concerts dad and grandad will be going to in the future to speak up at? That way people who actually go to concerts to listen to performers play music can avoid disrespectful people like grandad and pop. Thank you!

  • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

    FYI, this is a famous early example (perhaps the first?) of a non-traditional (i.e., after 1550-1750) use of the harpsichord, for contemporary music, dating from 1950. The text is by two famous Armenian-Americans. It caused the same to-do about propriety and authenticity then as the issue seems to have provoked so unpleasantly today. History shouldn’t be such a mystery. Enjoy! (Ars longa, vita brevis.)

  • David Badagnani says:

    I wrote a comprehensive article treating the subject of new music composed for early music instruments (including harpsichord) a few years ago. You can download and read it here:

  • Rebecca says:

    If I went to a performance and it was distrusted by noisy members of the audience like that I would expect these people to be politely asked to leave so that those who want to listen to the piece, and have also paid for their tickets, can enjoy the concert.

  • Dennis Kuhn says:

    Same happened to us in BERLIN at the KONZERTHAUS in 2013 with the same piece but played on two marimbas. Sorry only in German: Review excerpt by Clemens Haustein:


    Mit der Exaktheit von Maschinen

    Nicht gerade die feine Art: Als Steve Reichs „Piano Phase“ bei Young Euro Classic zur Aufführung kam, wurde wütend mit den Türen geschlagen, in den Saal hineingerufen, gebuht, gepfiffen und dazwischen geklatscht, um das offenbar entsetzliche Stück vorzeitig zu beenden.

    Auch im Konzertsaal ist heute noch der Skandal möglich. Es kam am Sonntagabend bei Young Euro Classic im Konzerthaus zwar nicht zu Handgreiflichkeiten wie vor hundert Jahren etwa bei der Uraufführung von Strawinskys „Sacre du printemps“. Aber es wurde doch immerhin wütend mit den Türen geschlagen, in den Saal hineingerufen, gebuht, gepfiffen und dazwischen geklatscht, um das offenbar entsetzliche Stück vorzeitig zu beenden. Die sich da so rüpelhaft benahmen, waren – man muss es leider sagen – vor allem ältere Menschen. Und was sie so in Rage brachte ein Werk des Minimal-Music Komponisten Steve Reich für zwei Marimbaphone. Es schien dann auch völlig egal zu sein, dass es sich bei den beiden Schlagzeugern um junge Nachwuchsmusiker des Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchesters handelte, denen man als Zuhörer doch zumindest mit gutem Willen begegnen sollte. Es wurde Radau gemacht.

    Warum die Aufregung? Steve Reichs „Piano Phase“ ist ein Werk, das mit der ständigen Wiederholung einer Reihe aus zwölf Tönen arbeitet. Zunächst spielen die beiden Musiker diese Reihe unisono, bis einer von ihn das Tempo beschleunigt und eine Phasenverschiebung herbeiführt: Die beiden Reihen werden dann zunächst um einen Ton verschoben gespielt, später um zwei Töne verschoben, um drei Töne – bis nach zwölf Verschiebungen wieder das Unisono erreicht ist. Effekt bei der ganzen Sache ist, dass aus dem Einerlei heraus schwer ortbare Interferenzen entstehen: seltsam schwebende Rhythmen, überraschende Betonungen einzelner Noten, Obertongezirpe. Das erinnert an Licht, das auf einer welligen Wasseroberfläche reflektiert wird: es glänzt scheinbar immer gleich, pulsiert in Wahrheit aber doch in feinen Nuancen. […]“

  • Peter K says:

    I read about this incident in the news and immedeately searched Youtube to understand what this music is. And I must say… WOW. This is Techno 25 years before Techno. This sounds like played by a sequenzer, I imagine adding drums and some synth carpets, and there you have a wonderful trance track that would fill dancefloors with magic (and people).

    As with endless repetitions in Techno tracks, I look rather than listen to this music. And during all these repetitions, patterns emerge, shine and disappear, to be followed by other patterns. Of course this is not the standard music with melodies, refrains and so on, but hey – a couple of decades into modern music, we should understand. This is like Piet Mondrian, like cubism, this is something you must engage in – or you will miss a valuable experience. And by the way it’s pretty hard to play being precise like a computer while slightly out of timing. Great stuff!

    Let me finish as a German, living near Cologne, that nobody ever should show a behavior like disrupting a performance of someone so capable. It tells more about the disrupter than about the performer. They who are not able to engage in new things, nor understand English, nor respectfully acknowledge that there are things beyond their horizon, cannot be called educated, no matter how well dressed they enter a classical concert hall.

    This is a great piece of art, and I apologize for anybody I share my country with who is not only stupid but yells this fact out in the air.

    Thank you


  • Sokol says:

    Earthly Terror

    I stopped at the gate of a rich city.
    I had everything the gods required;
    I was ready; the burdens
    of preparation had been long.
    And the moment was the right moment,
    the moment assigned to me.

    Why were you afraid ?

    The moment was the right moment;
    response must be ready.
    On my lips,
    the words trembled that were
    the right words. Trembled-

    And I knew that if I failed to answer
    quickly enough, I would be turned away.

    – Louise Glück

  • Joachim Rang says:

    I just listened to the piece. The funny thing is it only starts to get interesting after a few minutes, when your brain starts to find or even “create” patterns. So the longer the piece goes the more interesting it becomes.

  • ALBERT LANDA says:

    “When I hear the word “culture” I reach for my gun” Hermann Goering

  • Andres says:

    “Yesterday’s experience started with the comic, transmuted into the tragic, and concluded on a sort of lovely note.”

    Sycophancy? Yes. It’s a common thing in this rotten world. People are unaccustomed to the pristine and the fine and the excellent. So they easily become fanatics of anything that is presented to them, no matter how lowly and reproachable.

    “I’ve performed this to acclaim to a variety of audiences and have found that for even the most hard-hearted opponents of modern music, it comes across as an accessible and even ‘fun’ piece.”

    Yeah. It’s fun for about fifteen seconds. Then it becomes a nightmare.

    “There are people in the world who want to completely destroy culture.”

    Yeah, like you. You’re not only destroying culture, you’re destroying the peace of mind of thousands of listeners.

    ““What are you afraid of?””

    Afraid? We’re not afraid. We’re incensed. You are quite obviously completely blind to the effect your music is having. It’s annoying. Get it? You can’t play the same thing over and over without not only confusing but annoying the rest of the audience.

    “There is no such thing as a static definition of ‘good’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘correct.’

    Really? So I guess, relatively speaking, killing or beheading someone could be considered something good or correct. Sound familiar? Making Hell out of Earth in the name of Heaven? Yeah, that’s what I thought. The level of consciousness of any type of music

    “And yet, it disturbs them so much to the depths of their souls that they want to stamp it out.” Yes. Your music is disturbing after the first fifteen seconds. You can’t help but drive everyone mad. Don’t you get it? You have to create something after that. You can’t just repeat the same thing over and over.

    “Some people are jerks;”

    Yeah, like yourself. You have no respect or consideration for the impact your music has on the average sophisticated listener.

    “Some people have fear and express it through hostility;”


    “Some people are annoyed when they don’t understand something immediately off the bat, and therefore develop fear.”

    There is nothing to understand other than the fact that your level of musical awareness is pathological at best. You appreciate things which are to the average person highly annoying.

    “For all the talk about fusty ‘old people’ keeping classical music back, the overwhelming support against yesterday’s detractors came from people from a variety of ages and backgrounds. So, I realised the truth of that funny rude proverb they say about what happens when you make assumptions.”

    Oh, isn’t that funny!

    “I’m also fairly sure that the harpsichord has never been in a situation which has inspired total order breaking down in a concert hall.”

    No. No one in recorded history has made such a blatantly problematic use of an instrument in public. You don’t get it. It’s about the quantity becoming a problem of quality.

    “For me, that’s indescribably awesome.”

    I’m sure you find the anger of an entire crowd tempting and pleasurable. How can you help it?

    “If this instrument can inspire opinions, then we are on to something.”

    Oh, really? What?

    “My brain hurts to think what would have transpired had I played something really new.”

    Yes. Our brains hurt after the first fifteen seconds as well. Try to avoid it and do something more creative and variegated next time. Seriously.

    • Hugh says:

      You tried so hard to pretend your problem was with the level of sophistication of his music and not his ethnicity which in you small, bigoted mind is related to “killing” and “beheading”.

  • Peter K says:

    Andres, so seem not to understand that “your music” is a well respected piece of art since 50 years. So it went through filters of time and the awareness of multiple generations, and survived. Had it been “annoying after 15 seconds” to everyone, that would not be the case.

    So if I don’t like a piece of art, I will stay away from it, but I will surely not disturb others who may have a different opinion. And if I only want to hear what I like, I play my own records, and avoid even turning on the radio. If I go out into the world, there may be things I don’t like, or new things to explore.

    Thanks – eter

  • nycsongs says:

    Maybe you should have worn clothes 🙂

  • Eddie Mars says:

    Tell us again Cologne is not a Far-Right stronghold???

  • Duncan says:

    I heard the piece on Radio 3 yesterday. It’s a gimmick. “Fake” music compared to Bach.
    Stop trying to dignify it – it’s NOT Stravinsky!