Harpsichodist gets heckled in recital

Harpsichodist gets heckled in recital


norman lebrecht

November 21, 2019

Mahan Esfahani was addressing an audience in Budapest last night on the personal history of Henry Cowell, a US composer jailed for homosexuality, when a young man leapt up and hurled abuse at the artist.

Mahan was explaining Cowell’s Set of Four and how the ‘chorale’ might be read as protest against old-school US religious chorales. The heckler began shouting that he ‘was being insulting to people of faith’.

Others in the audience told him to shut up. The heckler, apparently an American, yelled ‘f*ck you’ and walked out.

The incidents are becoming sadly less uncommon.



  • CR says:

    The homophobic heckler was American? How embarrassing, once again…

  • Zaragoza says:

    It is always disgusting to see these religious nuts try to impose their hateful fantasies on everyone else. When will they understand that yes, they have a right to believe in fairy tales, but that doesn’t mean they can force their made-up dogmas down our ears.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I’m heavily paraphasing the lines from “The Red Shoes”: please remember it is much more disappointing to have to protest about this than to be protested at!!

  • Patrick Gillot says:

    so finally people voting for Orban are not the monsters that you usually describe?

    • M2N2K says:

      Vilifying an American, even if he is only “apparently an American”, always takes precedence.

      • Frank says:

        Perhaps he was Canadian? The accent is almost identical.

        Makes you wonder if the guy listens to Tchaikovsky.

        • Karl says:

          A Canadian saying “f*ck you”? Not likely. A Canadian would say “f*ck you, eh”

        • Brettermeier says:

          “Perhaps he was Canadian? The accent is almost identical.”

          About that…

        • V. Lind says:

          Seems unlikely. For a time Toronto was inundated with American gays coming up to get married because they could in Canada and could not in the US.

          We have our share of nutters, but, being Canadian, they tend not to make a song and dance about it.

  • Cowellmania says:

    Well, on the other hand, it’s kinda cool to see that Cowell and his music is still riling people up.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sorry, but Cowell was not jailed for homosexuality, but rather sex with an underage male. Essentially, it was statutory rape.

    • Araragi says:

      Actually, Cowell was jailed for violation of Section 288a of the California penal code, which (at the time) outlawed any act of oral sex. I’ve read Cowell pleaded guilty without the advice of legal counsel; had Cowell sought legal counsel, he almost certainly would have gotten off without jail time. It is noteworthy that Section 288a makes no mention of homosexuality or age.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    This harpsichord player seems to bring out the worst in people:

    • John Borstlap says:

      “After the noisy interruption of Reich’s piece, Esfahani tried to enter into dialogue with his audience. ‘What are you afraid of?’ Yet willingness to dialogue there was none.”

      No wonder.

      The whole article is about the resistance against ‘the other’ and ‘the new’, of hearts and minds ‘closing-off’ against the ‘unknown’. The possibility that the piece concerned could be an awful flop and a very irritating listening experience for a part of the audience, is never thought of, as Esfahani’s ‘attempt at dialogue’ shows: is the music rejected by the audience, that could only be out of fear, never out of some assessment or an informed opinion.

      It could be that the protesting part of the audience found this type of music out of place in a harpsichord recital, and possibly these people were better qualified to have such opinion than the rest of the audience which wanted to be seen as progressive, tolerant and ‘in the know’. Also it could be that the piece was very good, or at least: listenable, and the protesting bunch a gang of reactionary idiots. But to conclude a priori that objection can only be a signal of fear, is patronizing and insulting.

      Conclusion: postwar music is always very good, because how could we possibly know the opposite?

      • SVM says:

        An audience-member does not have the right to heckle *during* the music just because he/she thinks it to be bad. He/she should wait until the end of the whole work/set/half/concert (as determined by the genre, performer’s approach, &c.), and heckle at that juncture, just as those who appreciate the music should wait until that juncture to applaud.

        A case not fitting the above can be found in the review cited by Cubs Fan, in that one of the interruptions was to object to Esfahani giving a talk in English at a concert in Germany. To me, that is a perfectly reasonable objection, unless it had been advertised officially that there would be a talk in English. However, it sounds like the objection of the detractor in Budapest had nothing to do with the choice of language.

        I am a native English-speaker myself, and I am deeply ashamed of the general failure of English-speakers to make any attempt at speaking anything in the local language when travelling abroad. I have noticed that, when foreign performers come to London, they address the audience in English, so why are English-speaking performers not reciprocating even a little bit? At the very least, Esfahani could have arranged with the concert promoter to have an interpreter on stage with him for the talking (I do not intend to single-out Esfahani here — I think *all* performers, and especially ‘star’ performers, should either learn a bit of the local language or use an interpreter when addressing the audience).

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          Bravo. It’s a shocking thing that Americans (just as ONE example) are not compulsorily taught a second language in school. At the very least it is hugely unsophisticated. Same with other English-speaking countries, I hasten to add.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Interrupting a performance is an extreme intervention indeed. But maybe in the case of the concert concerned, some audience members were simply overwhelmed by offensive irritation and lost all German control.

          That happens more often with minimal music, and recent medical research in Florida has established a form of psychic disturbance unleashed by it, and named the condition ‘Neuropathominilogical Hysteria Syndrome’. Tensions slowly building-up during a performance of minimal music suddenly and unexpectedly burst from the seams of autodiscipline and disrupt social environments. The condition is thought to be related to the Stendhal syndrome, as a kind of inverted mirror condition: as the Stendhal syndrome leads to nervous breakdown under the weight of experiencing too much high art, NHS is the result of sinking into a pit of nihilistic self-reproach about having been seduced to attend meaningless repetition that leads nowhere.


          • HugoPreuss says:

            This was an Iranian born musician, trained in Prague, living in the United States, interrupted by an American during a concert in Budapest. And yet, somehow, “German control” creeps into it. Bravo.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I was referring to a concert in Germany, my fault.

        • Mr. Knowitall says:

          A little local language, enough to say thank you, sure. But touring musicians can in a single year play in dozens of countries in which languages other than English are spoken. In a single month I’ve played Japan, Germany, Holland, the United States, and Belgium. It’s unreasonable to expect us to become conversant in every local language.

          • SVM says:

            …which is why I said “a little bit” and “a bit”. Or ask the concert promoter for an interpreter. Or write out a very short introductory talk (I realise this is not ideal, since many performers, quite rightly, prefer to give these sort of talks /ex tempore/, but at least a brief scripted outline, say 30–60 seconds, in the local language seems proportionate) and ask the promoter to provide a translation (phonetic if necessary).

            When you make music, you are communicating artistically in your own unique language, and your audience should respect that. But when you are addressing your audience with spoken words, you should try to speak the local language, at least a little.

        • Lex says:

          I might be wrong, but I think Mahan Esfahani is one of those performers who actually DOES speak multiple languages and always makes some of his address in the ‘host’ language, although then switches to English often because it is more universally understood regardless of the nationality of the audience member…
          …and I do think it’s a little hard on performers appearing in a whole host of different countries. You could speak 10 languages and not the 11th, and someone would still call you out on being ‘English speaking’

          • SVM says:

            …which is why I added that getting a local interpreter would also be an acceptable solution. In cities such as Cologne or Budapest, a concert promoter should have had no trouble finding a competent interpreter (whether amateur or professional, but preferably someone who is knowledgable about music) who can translate from English into the local language.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            A local interpreter costs money and these venues are on a very tight budget. I am afraid the talk will be in English (a universal language widely spoken and understood) or not done at all.

  • PHF says:

    So Trumpian of him…

  • Doug says:

    Wait a minute, how many of you instantly labeling the heckler a “homophobe” know for a fact that perhaps he was in fact a homosexual himself and was merely objecting to the characterization of his protected class?

    You simple minded leftists are as reflexive and obedient as Pavlov’s dog.

    • CR says:

      Wait a minute, you don’t know what my political views are, so instantly labeling me a simple minded leftist shows YOU are as reflexive and obedient as Pavlov’s dog. A few right wing people are supportive of others, including those who are part of what you refer to as “his protected class.”

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      “his protected class?”


      Do explain.

      Are you referring to those laws that stop gay people from being sacked for being gay and stop them being refused goods and services and make it a crime to beat them up?

  • John Borstlap says:

    The music could not have been the problem:


    It seems quite unnecessary to wash the dirty linen of the composer when performing his music, which is not ‘about’ something, whatever the inspiration.

  • Karl says:

    Less uncommon? Or more common? Other examples?

  • Tom says:

    What language was Mr. Esfahani speaking?

  • K says:

    May I ask a perhaps related but off topic question: is it possible that there is too much discussion of the pieces being played by the performer(s) — any performer at any concert)?

    Will the circumstances surrounding Cowell’s life be directly absorbed by the audience as they listen to the music?

    Are any personal situations of Cowell truly made manifest in the composition? If they are, are they absolutely representative of some act, or personal belief of Cowell, or any other composer?

    What is the limit of a “program” being essential to letting music affect the listener?

    Not trying to stir any pots, but I feel like we often don’t let the music speak for itself in concert situations. I posit that we, in general, talk too much and don’t let listening occur organically. This is not a criticism of scholarship or serious music criticism; it’s more an observation of how these two activities can coexist without one getting in the way of the other.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      To my certain knowledge nobody discusses Oscar Wilde before, during or after a performance of “Salome” (the play or the opera).

    • SVM says:

      Esfahani is certainly garrulous on stage. On the occasion I heard him, at a Wigmore Hall recital, he made some interesting comments on performance practice in Bach’s keyboard music. For me, they added something to the performance. It sounds, however, like the nature of Esfahani’s talk on Cowell was very different, so one cannot extrapolate assumptions about its value.

      It is very difficult, and not always necessary, to delineate clearly between “highly relevant contextual factors bearing upon our understanding of the music itself” and “interesting but irrelevant anecdotes”. External factors such as living conditions, illness, disability (e.g.: deafness), incarceration, personal relationships, professional collaborators, projected availability of rehearsal time, and commissions certainly condition a composer’s artistic output both as expressed in music notation and as expressed in performance. Whilst the ‘practical criticism’ approach of disregarding these factors is certainly illuminating, it would be myopic to insist upon it invariably. At the same time, it would be fallacious to argue that a composer were purely “a product of his/her time and place” and had no individual agency in his/her works. Indeed, the individuality of composers becomes particularly evident when comparing works by different composers but sharing the same commissioning context. So, rather than treat ‘contextual studies’ and ‘practical criticism’ as a binary choice to which one must bear consistent allegiance, let us avail ourselves of both approaches, and appreciate both the similarities and contradictions in the results that become apparent.

      • K says:

        Well, I found your comments/observations to be very astute, and in general I agree with the applications. I know that many organizations now give pre-concert lectures, very often by the principal performers, to inquisitive, sincerely interested audience members, and I have no issue with this. But, unfortunately, these discussions often fall back into biases and the worst sort of anecdotal music history. And from a subjective point of view, I can only imagine that a discussion of any composer’s sexual preferences/activities will only goad those who are looking for titillation rather than other sensory experiences. Going back to my initial query, perhaps this is why we should refrain from even “going there” in the first place. Thanks for your response.

    • Olev says:

      A sensible coherent comment encouraging discussion on Slippedisc?
      Of course it is tucked away right at the bottom.

      I think it is important for performers to do the research on the pieces they are performing. The issue is that they then want it to be ‘recognised’ by the audience – ie. “Hey look, I did all this research that took me quite a bit of time. Let me tell you about it!” Whereas it should be sufficient for the performer to do it for herself/the sake of the interpretation and then “let the music speak” with the added knowledge of the research.

  • Larry L. Lash / Vienna says:

    I do wish that Americans could realize that our opera houses and concert halls are not simply tourist sites.

    On Tuesday night, Simon Keenlyside sang a gorgeous, intense “Winterreise” (accompanied by Thomas Adès) at Wiener Staatsoper.

    Shortly before the start of the concert, three Americans entered, having to be shown exactly where their seats were. They spoke loudly and had no idea what was going on since the orchestra pit was covered and had a grand piano on it, and the curtains were shut.

    There was an ordinary-looking man, an obese woman wearing a blinding white “Pepsi-Cola” sweatshirt, and a small child with a toy (I am surprised that the Staatsoper ushers allowed him to bring in into the auditorium).

    They were quiet and respectful for about the first 10 minutes of the concert, and then exited just as noisily as they entered.

    I have seen this kind of behaviour often in Wien, and from Prague and Budapest to Roma and Napoli.

    Should I ever one day see someone in an opera house wearing a MAGA cap I shall shout to them “Go home! We don’t want you here!” echoing lines from their president.

    • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

      I don’t necessarily disagree with your characterization of Americans (I am one) but this situation seems very unlikely to have actually happened. You make it sound like a man and his obese wife with a Pepsi t-shirt and their annoying child with a toy just happened upon a Staatsoper concert featuring Keenlyside, Ades, and a Schumann song cycle.

  • Jack says:

    A ‘Christian’ who leaves the hall with a ‘F**k you!”. Interesting.

  • Jack says:

    Cowell and Percy Grainger had an interesting friendship during this period that lasted through the rest of their lives.

  • BillOxford says:

    Christian behaviour indeed. What about ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, ‘Judge not, that you be not judged’, There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?’. etc?