I doubt that a harpsichord has managed to cause a riot, not in hundreds of years. Until now, that is. Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, performing a moderately “modern” piece in a concert with Concerto Köln, was met with such objection by some listeners that the concert was harshly interrupted.

Mahan Esfahani © Marco Borggreve
Mahan Esfahani
© Marco Borggreve
Esfahani reports that he was playing Steve Reich's Piano Phase in a version with live piano against a previously made recording, requiring him to wear monitoring headphones. After a short time he reports loud clapping in the audience that eventually turned into catcalls and a downright yelling match between different fractions of the audience. This didn't come out of nothing; the situation seems to have built up to this outburst. "Will you kindly speak German?!" some audience members are said to have loudly demanded when Esfahani introduced the concert in English. 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.

This situation draws alarming parallels to another most current situation in Germany and other European countries. In a world in which we know so much and information is always readily available, the things we don't or choose not to know are the most frightening, be it other people(s) or unfamiliar, "new" culture (may I point out that Piano Phase is nearly fifty years old!). It is a situation in which some presumably German attendees have not exactly covered themselves in glory. I say some, because the majority of the audience clearly expressed their loyalty with the musicians and openly apologised for the behaviour of their peers, as has the Philharmonie, who has promptly invited Esfahani to return with the piece in March next year.

In commenting on those "verbal arsonists", Axel Brüggemann makes a fierce comparison between those few listeners and those who find it impossible to accept any culture other than their own that they set out to set light to buildings designated to house refugees. Many an onlooker will fear to see history repeat itself, and as a German, I am positively shocked at the intolerance and unwillingness to help those in need, an unwillingness that now seems to be extending to music. I fail to understand how not only citizens but entire countries close their doors and hearts.

An immigrant myself, I have always been welcomed with open arms wherever I turned (for which I feel privileged), and much of it has to do with music. It is often said to be a universal language, and while this may not always be true for the more modern varieties, its more traditional idioms certainly communicate to a wide range of people of all ages, interests and backgrounds. It is in more than one sense multicultural, and it can only be so through a plethora of influences, it lives and breathes diversity.

Réunion de musiciens (Musicians at a meeting) © André Bouys
Réunion de musiciens (Musicians at a meeting)
© André Bouys
For hundreds and hundreds of years, musicians and composers from around the world have travelled to the big cities and the big musical centres to learn from the masters not only their praised, long polished art, but also their new ideas and at times groundbreaking methods - and to exchange and learn from one another. It is an admirable curiosity about the new that led these people to travel hundreds of miles in rattly mail coaches, and it wasn't only a thing of the olden days, either. Modern society is international; our modern world enables us to access any information virtually anywhere and at any time we please, and it allows us to travel easily and affordably to places near and far, musician or otherwise. This gives many of us the opportunity to be curious, too, to experience the unknown, to shed fears and prejudices, and to embrace the ways of others - we only have to take it. But is this where the problem lies?

Sometimes I feel that, with regards to music, hardly anything can shock us these days. The times of Stravinsky's Sacre, the times in which a composition can cause mighty outrage amongst an audience, seem a thing of the past. We have seen it all, heard it all, yet a comparatively "old" piece can cause a stir, and I wonder... Have we become bitter? Have we lost interest the "other", lost the motivation to go to that blank spot on the map and explore? When has it become too troublesome?

Before we can embrace something new there will often be a good deal of wrestling with it, with other ideas, and this is important. It is where we try to understand, perhaps question, perhaps fail, and hopefully try again. Music, for example, is there to be enjoyed, and music is there to challenge us every day, to force us to look at it from another angle, to look over the rim of our afternoon tea cup. It isn't there to always please. Thus, while a piece may well not always please us, we may not like all of it, or any of it, as a matter of fact, it's what we choose to do with this knowledge of dislike that makes the difference. We mustn't close ourselves to something we perhaps don't understand or immediately like. We need open doors, open minds and open ears. Let us make an effort. Let us accept the challenge music sometimes sets us; let us be curious. Let us return to a piece we've never much liked, and we suddenly may find that there is something hidden in the composition - perhaps a chord progression, perhaps a melody or a rhythm, or something entirely different - that touches something in us.

Mahan Esfahani certainly touched something in some of his listeners, sparking the hostile reaction. While I dare not imagine what might have happened had he played a "really" contemporary, more inaccessible piece, this incident shows us music pushing boundaries; music challenging, music demanding. "I'm [...] fairly sure that the harpsichord has never been in a similar situation which has inspired total order breaking down in a concert hall," Esfahani writes in a comment. "For me, that's indescribably awesome. If this instrument can inspire opinions, then we are on to something."