Mahan Esfahani © Kaja Smith
Mahan Esfahani
© Kaja Smith

Everyone hears a different siren song that draws them to Prague. In the case of Mahan Esfahani, the sound was a harpsichord and the siren was Zuzana Růžičková, the global star who in the 1950s pulled the instrument out of museums and almost single-handedly restored it to live performance status.

Esfahani was living in London when he started commuting to Prague in early 2011 to study with Růžičková. He had no plans to relocate, but over time the cityʼs allure proved irresistible. “The more I would go, the more it became a source of solace,” he says. “Spending time with Zuzana was always a fascinating musical experience. Then I started meeting other interesting people, and discovered this incredible musical culture.”

What Esfahani found was a place where music was not an avocation, but a way of life. “What blows my mind about the Czech Republic is that itʼs not like the cognoscenti have their own musical culture, and the man on the street has no idea of music,” he says. “Music and culture is how Czechs define their nationhood. And every Czech has a different way of consuming music.”

As an example, Esfahani offers quick takes on three of Pragueʼs five symphony orchestras. “Weʼve got the flagship orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, where the great and good go,” he says. “Then thereʼs the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, which attracts younger people because they do a lot of funky programming. And the Czech National Symphony Orchestra is where taxi drivers take their wives to hear Smetana and Dvořák. Every crowd has its own orchestra, which is mind-boggling.”

Learning that landscape was another matter, as Esfahani discovered when he packed up his harpsichord and moved to Prague in September 2015. The musical lifeblood of the city is obvious in the profusion of concert halls, theaters and other performance venues and the number of young people walking around with instruments strapped to their backs. But for an expat who doesnʼt read or speak Czech, plugging into whatʼs going on can be challenging. Advertising is minimal, promotion is still a new concept, and people in the know just seem to know.

Count Esfahani among those in the know now, after several years making friends and learning the local scene. One lesson is that good things come in small, unexpected places like the Atrium in Žižkov, a neighborhood culture center about a 10-minute walk from his flat in leafy Vinohrady. Atriumʼs modest size belies programming that regularly features A-list Czech players like pianist Martin Kasík and violinist Ivan Ženatý, and events like an international piano festival. The intimate setting, where performers often socialize with audience members after the concert, reflects another remarkable aspect of Czech musical culture.

“Thereʼs a sense here that the major players are just kind of average Joes,” Esfahani says. “In a place like New York or London, they would be unapproachable. In Prague, you run into them at cafés and theyʼre just like ordinary people. Itʼs nice living in a virtually classless society, especially after England, where there are so many social layers to work through. The equality here is a joy.”

Next Door, a bistro opened as an offshoot of the storied Imperial Café in New Town © David Karlin
Next Door, a bistro opened as an offshoot of the storied Imperial Café in New Town
© David Karlin

Esfahani also follows friends like pianist Jan Bartoš, whose recent release of Janáčekʼs solo piano works drew international attention. Along with attending his performances, Esfahani is a devotee of a series that Bartoš runs called Prague Music Performance, which has brought artists ranging from jazz pianist Brad Mehldau to the legendary Beethoven specialist Alfred Brendel to town. Getting in that loop has led to other series that have a way of coming and going almost unnoticed, like a festival of Byzantine and early Orthodox music that was staged in October. Esfahani is equally attuned to high-profile festivals like Contempuls and Strings of Autumn, where he gave a solo recital of modern American music in November.

The 125-year-old Czech Chamber Music Society series is a staple, especially performances in the small Suk Hall at the Rudolfinum. At the larger Dvořák Hall, Esfahani is a regular at Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra concerts, which have taken a decided upturn under new Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Alexander Liebreich. Esfahani is also a fan of PKF – Prague Philharmonia, with whom he will be appearing at the Prague Spring festival in 2020, playing Haydn and Nyman. “Iʼm biased because Iʼve played with them a couple times, but PKF is a fabulous young orchestra doing great work,” he says.

Esfahaniʼs partner is an opera buff, so he regularly finds himself at the National Theater and State Opera, as well as at National Theater affiliates throughout the country. “Part of the attraction of Prague is that you can get on a train and go to places like Ostrava or Brno or České Budějovice to see some first-rate regional opera,” he says. “Prague opera tends to be hit or miss, though the last two I saw – Dalibor and The Love for Three Oranges – were as good as anything in Europe.”

When heʼs not at concerts, Esfahani tends to frequent places where musicians hang out, like the Újezd Pub in Malá Strana. From there itʼs just two tram stops to U Malého Glena, where his friend Najponk plays jazz piano. Closer to home, colleagues from the Pavel Haas Quartet are regulars at the retro Kavárna Kaaba, and the Prádelna Café offers a cozy, affordable solo retreat. “In London I had nowhere to go to read a book – at least, nowhere that didnʼt take 50 pounds from you for drinks,” Esfahani says.

Another favorite is U Rudolfina, a pub close to the Rudolfinum where itʼs almost impossible not to run into musicians after concerts. “It has really bad goulash, but you get to see a lot of composers from Prague Conservatory there too,” Esfahani says.

For real dining, Esfahani is a fan of Next Door, an upscale bistro opened as an offshoot of the storied Imperial Café (located literally next door) in New Town. “It represents everything I love about Prague in one place,” he says. “It breathes the spirit of the good old Austro-Hungarian dining culture whilst having revived what was famous about Czech food in the 19th century: an innovative use of ingredients, a really great wine list. Czech food gets an unfairly bad rap in Western Europe, based on the fairly limited dishes on offer during the period of the Eastern Bloc, and Next Door is addressing this in a really convincing way. For me, it doesn’t get much better than a nice veal tripe with smoked paprika accompanied by an austere, dry Moravian white wine.”

Mahan Esfahani © Kaja Smith
Mahan Esfahani
© Kaja Smith

A busy tour schedule keeps Esfahani on the road much of the time, but increasingly he is onstage in Prague, building his own audience. This also took time. As Esfahani learned, in a country still recovering from a half-century of Nazi and Communist occupation, foreigners are not easily or immediately accepted, especially if they have well-established careers abroad. “When I first got to Prague there was a feeling that I would be a fly-by-night performer,” he says. “But once people saw that I was committed to being here, and was going to stay, and play Czech music, it was fine.”

And Esfahani is always looking for opportunities to deepen his involvement. As soon as a flat he bought is renovated, he will be moving to a neighborhood close to Domovina, the longtime studio of the Czech classical label Supraphon. “I drop by when friends are recording there, itʼs an amazing place,” he says. “Iʼm trying to convince my label, Hyperion, to let me do my recordings there. I could wake up in the morning and just walk to my recording session, which would be so nice.”

In the meantime, Esfahani has become a tour guide of sorts, showing visiting friends like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and pianist Marc-André Hamelin around the city. “When colleagues come from abroad, Iʼm really proud to show them Prague,” he says. “I feel like itʼs my city now.”

Thatʼs true even when heʼs traveling. “I feel what Czechs feel,” he says. “When Iʼm abroad I think, this is nice, but Iʼm looking forward to being back home. Why would I want to be anywhere else?”

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This article was sponsored by Prague City Tourism.