From how many more angles can one possibly approach a widely admired and world famous performer, who has answered interviewers’ questions on numerous occasions? Only my highest esteem for Yefim Bronfman’s stellar pianism and personable demeanor has encouraged me to try to shine yet another light on him. By connecting the dots between known facts, and adding some of his fresh comments, I hope to expand the portrait of one of our century’s major classical pianists.
It is Bronfman’s endearing trait of not taking himself too seriously, which, according to him, has surprised many people. He likes to enjoy himself, or, as he puts it, “have a good time.”
His much-publicized appearance as a judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef in August 2009 might be the most prominent example of this, with playing sidekick to violinist Gil Shaham in a recent YouTube clip titled “Run, Gil, Run” competing for second place. Bronfman assured me that he and his good friend Shaham just improvised without any preparation; they know each other well from joint performances and recordings of Beethoven.
Beyond his excursions into the world of food and wine, and his willingness to do things for and with his friends, it is his generosity when responding to encore demands which truly impresses. This year’s Avery Fisher Hall performance, when roaring applause made him give an unusual solo encore of the most beautifully rendered Schumann Arabesque, right after he had performed Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, serves as a stellar example.
No wonder audiences return time and again for his reliable and compelling artistry, which doesn’t require extravagant showmanship or cool attire. His charisma, sincere musicality, and professional integrity create the most powerful, grandiose, and intimate moments with great sensitivity.
Talking about Bronfman’s almost complete lack of “artiste’s ego,” Stuart Isacoff commented in a February 2008 issue of the Wall Street Journal on how Mr. Bronfman “… was a bit stunned, that Carnegie Hall chose to anoint him with his own ‘Perspectives Series,’ wondering if he really deserved that distinction.” Previous pianists who where given this honor include Daniel Barenboim, Richard Goode, Martha Argerich, and Maurizio Pollini. Bronfman’s own comment? “When I see all the fuss about me, I don’t understand why. [Performing] is always an ongoing experiment, never finished. And it’s always about the music; that’s where the focus belongs.”
How does he feel about his fans waiting in long lines for his autograph? “I don’t really get it,” he says modestly. But this does not stop him from complying with his admirers’ wishes. On the contrary — he welcomes them with a friendly smile and doors to his backstage green room wide open.
Bronfman has lived in New York for over 30 years, and is a staple of the city’s classical music scene. He loves being a New Yorker, and generously lends his time and artistry to numerous fundraisers within the community and beyond, including at locations like Grand Central Station, where he performed a benefit concert for New York’s Food Bank in 2007.
Despite his international career and a touring calendar planned out three years in advance, he regularly spends time in his favorite city. His mother, who guided his first steps as a pianist from age 7, lives in the same Upper West Side apartment building that he calls home. So does another famous New York pianist, Bronfman’s longtime friend and colleague, Emanuel Ax. “We have been friends forever, long before we started performing together,” says Bronfman about the slightly older Ax, who has built an international career as a solo and chamber musician.
In the past ten years, both pianists have recorded shared repertoire, and as a two-piano ensemble have repeatedly shared stages around the world. Explains Emanuel Ax, “We share the same manager at Opus 3 Artists, Jenny Vogel, and since we have been such close friends we had the idea that we should try playing together. We started with a recording of Rachmaninoff, then a Brahms disc with the ‘Variations of a Theme’ by Haydn, and the Sonata in F- minor, op. 34b …”
“It is not an unusual thought,” continues Emanuel Ax. “You make friends and start to work together. I am a great fan of his [Bronfman’s] playing; for me, it’s a privilege to work together with him. He is a very serious artist and one of today’s most musically exciting and brilliant performers. It’s also wonderful to be on stage with a friend. We have a lot of fun and enjoy being together, on-stage and off. We both love to eat, even though we both have to watch our diets.”
Being called a ‘serious’ artist does not equate with ‘boring,’ however. Although many people may believe that the classical genre breeds no jocular delights, proof to the contrary is readily available. The classic/comic duo, Igudesman & Joo, for example, has done an extremely good job at trying to shatter that ‘no fun’ image. Ax has joined them in performance in the past, showing he, too, has a real knack for comedy (as have many other musicians). During Igudesman & Joo’s private performance at Zankel Hall this June, I spotted Bronfman among the invited audience, asking myself if he was also gearing up to show more of his comical talents.
Given that Bronfman and Ax are neighbors, I was curious to find out if they were rehearsing at one another’s homes. Says Bronfman, “No, that usually happens at the concert halls we perform at, and sometimes, when rehearsing for a last minute solo performance, for example, at Steinway Hall or at Juilliard.” Both Ax and Bronfman are Juilliard alumni; Ax also teaches there, but due to his busy performance schedule, he often can only take on a single student at a time.
Bronfman is looking at teaching as a possibility for the future. In the meantime, he wants to keep doing, well, “more of the same.” And while doing so, some of his friends have become collaborators, and some of his collaborators have become friends.
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, for example, championed Bronfman as a performer even before his appointment as Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1992. Then, in 2002, Bronfman discovered Salonen’s solo piano composition, “Dichotomie.” The two musicians cemented their relationship when the New York Philharmonic commissioned Salonen’s piano concert. Yet, due to difficulties in scheduling, Bronfman could only perform at the long-planned premiere for the piece in February 2007.
“There’s this boundless technique, of course, and stylistic versatility and all that. But there’s also selflessness in his playing. Not that he is anonymous – not at all – but he never puts himself ahead of the music, which is kind of refreshing,” says Salonen about Bronfman.
In his interviews with Bronfman, Mermelstein quotes the pianist in his 2008 Los Angeles Times article as saying, “Let’s face it: You need five lifetimes to play all the repertory you want to. What keeps me going is the new repertory. Learning new pieces and commissioning new works is what I enjoy most.”
The same interview also pre-empts the somewhat stereotyped assumption that the Russian-born Bronfman only specializes in Russian repertory (which he also plays really well, though).
Born in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, Fima – as his friends call Yefim Bronfman – immigrated with his family to Israel in 1973. When I asked him about his level of religious observance as a Jew, he told me, “It is a little bit complicated. My father was not observant but my mother is very observant. And I am somewhat of a mix. I don’t attend services but do know about the holidays. I am spiritual and conscious of my Jewish identity. And I am always supporting Jewish causes and fundraisings for Israel.”
In Tel Aviv, Bronfman won a scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation (AICF) in a competition chaired by Isaac Stern. This enabled him to commence his studies with pianist Arie Vardi, Head of the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, in 1974. Bronfman describes Vardi as a great artistic and pedagogic authority. The chance to audition with Zubin Mehta provided the first big break for Bronfman. Mehta, at the time Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, had been with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra earlier in his career, and had also appeared as a conductor with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1974, Bronfman performed with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra and then, in 1975, made his international debut with Maestro Mehta and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, in Canada.
Thanks to help from the AICF, Bronfman continued his studies at the Juilliard School in New York and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. His participation in the Marlboro Festival brought him to Leon Fleisher – another great anchor and educator in his early years. Bronfman’s career was blessed from the very start.
Now a world famous musician himself, the connection with Stern has come full circle with Bronfman’s unwavering support for an institution very dear to Stern’s heart — The American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bronfman’s commitment and loyalty to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is remarkable, indeed. “Since his debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in May of 1974, he has performed over 160 concerts with the orchestra in Israel. The relationship is one of beautiful music and mutual respect,” says Sheryl Palley-Engel, communications manager of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “Mr. Bronfman gives generously of his time and talent to help promote the IPO in the United States, and has joined the AFIPO Board of Directors in 2004. He also shares his extraordinary talent by performing private recitals in New York and Los Angeles for AFIPO patrons, and he performs at AFIPO Annual Gala Benefits.”
One of the upcoming highlights will be the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s return to the United States on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of maestro Zubin Mehta’s conducting debut, scheduled for February 11, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.
On February 22, 2011, Yefim Bronfman will be guest performing with Maestro Mehta and the orchestra at that AFIPO Annual Gala Concert. For more information about these events go to AFIPO’s web site.
Watch my blog for upcoming articles on Zubin Mehta and the 2011 return of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to the United States.