Yefim Bronfman, pianistic force, in two acts
By Fraser Beath McEwing
* This article was first published on J-Wire on 26/11/2014. Yefim Bronfman is touring Australia, in November and December 2014, performing with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra *
I’ve been invited to a rehearsal at the Opera House. I feel pretty special; one of only three people in a deluge of empty red seats. On stage is our beloved Sydney Symphony Orchestra, not in elegant eveningwear, but in jeans, t-shirts and all things comfortable. The conductor, t-shirted Donald Runnicles, a Scot, could be Billy Connolly’s twin brother. He raises his baton.
Seated at the Opera House’s new Steinway concert grand is one of the world’s finest pianists, Yefim Bronfman. He’s casual too, in a big brown cardigan over a blue striped polo shirt. At his feet are a couple of cardboard coffee containers and a brightly coloured canvas bag. He nods to Runnicles and instantly the tympani becomes the starter’s gun for the strings to stream into the somber opening of Brahms first Piano Concerto.
The transformation is remarkable. There is nothing now but the music.
Bronfman waits for the lengthy opening to finish and then begins to play. His massive torso is positioned high over the keyboard, wrists above the fingers the way our piano teacher taught us but we never mastered. His technique is peerless, opening the doorway to an effortless commune between piano, orchestra and Johannes Brahms.
This is the final rehearsal before tomorrow afternoon’s performance, the first of four presenting the Brahms concerto and Mahler’s first symphony.
After the demanding first movement, Bronfman leaves his stool for a brief discussion with Runnicles. The richly wistful slow movement begins, and Bronfman shows his tenderness, made all the more meaningful by the stormy cavalry charges he handed out in the first movement.
There is no break between the second and third movements. Bronfman is soon getting stuck into the driving rhythms and the urgent calls from either end of the keyboard. There is every reason for him to be flinging his arms, snapping his neck and contorting his body, but no. He sits there like a giant brick dressed in in a brown cardigan. Only his hands are moving. Occasionally, he gazes into the viola department, lost in the moment of some other realm, or looks up at Runnicles who is confidently driving the heavy machinery.
If this is a rehearsal can the performance be any better? I can’t imagine so.
Katherine, the SSO people shepherdess, has taken my friend Henry and me down into the labyrinth of the Opera House to a room where soloists come to prepare themselves for the walk to the concert hall stage. Many would be terrified, but all would be apprehensive. This comfortable room is also a kind of home base. It provides a close-to-the-water view of the famous bridge. Next to the horizontal windows is a boudoir-size grand piano – but still a Steinway. The room also has a couple of couches for interviews like the one we have been granted with Bronfman. I am now the one who is apprehensive. How could somebody that has just torn Brahms apart be easy to talk to? Surely he’d be scary, maybe scornful.
Bronfman walks in, extending one of his powerful hands and I am reminded of Philip Roth’s description of him in the novel The Human Stain: ‘Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it.’
He sits opposite us, his canvas bag beside him. And here is the second transformation. He begins to chat like a mate. No superiority, no look of ‘how soon can I get clear of these guys?’ If anything, he’s humble.
This is his sixth visit to Australia – beginning in 1978 with the Israel Philharmonic when he was 20, meaning he is more than a seasoned performer, but he denies he was a child prodigy.
“I just went along learning piano, then had a few auditions with conductors in Israel and they engaged me. That’s how it happened. Things turned around for me for some reason. My parents didn’t push me. I don’t agree with parents who do.”
He was born in Tashkent, moved to Israel when he was 14 and three years later settled in the United States – where he became a citizen in 1989. But Israel remains dear to him. He remembers the rich musical life and the great performers that visited. He still has an apartment there.
He likes Australian audiences, finding them appreciative, but the feeling he gets from each one is different. And he doesn’t mind applause between movements.
“In Mozart’s time, audiences could begin to applaud the soloist even before a movement was finished,” he says. “Some movements finish with what seems to call for applause, so it’s okay.”
Audiences he played for recently in China are a bit more testing. “During a performance they change seats, talk and take pictures. Very informal, but you accept it,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes it can be too formal, too uptight. You have to have some middle ground. Music should be enjoyed.”
We ask him about the enormous growth in the number of Asian pianists, thinking that they would make the competition just that much tougher.
“Thank God for the rise of Asian pianists,” he replies. “They rescue piano playing. They are the new breath of classical music and we need it. Sure, the field is overcrowded but it always was. Very few instrumentalists can survive on solo appearances. But for the good ones, there is always room.”
With so much free classical recorded music available, is Bronfman hostile about the diminishing rewards to recording artists?
“Technology has pushed the recording business out. The record labels now hardly produce anything new. But we should be very grateful to them for making recordings in the past of some of the greats like Glen Gould, Heifetz and Horowitz.”
And what does ‘Mr Fortissimo’ (Roth again) do between concerts?
“I travel but I am not a tourist,” he says. “I keep practicing. And it’s not just about the notes. There are continuing artistic challenges. You’re only as good as your last concert. For instance, I won’t leave here until seven o’clock this evening. I’ll be practicing. I’m preparing a piano concerto to be premiered in Berlin in three weeks time. It was written for me by Jorg Widmann.”
Bronfman is totally dedicated to piano playing. He doesn’t teach – except for the occasional master class – and confessions of hobbies have to be coaxed out of him. “I’m not a bad table tennis player, I read a lot, and I love playing chess – often on the computer these days. I played a master once – I lost of course – but he said I had a natural talent for chess.”
Our shepherdess stands up. The meter has run its course and I suspected Bronfman is thinking about lunch, after which he will be back in this room wrestling with musical subtleties beyond my comprehension.
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Yefim Bronfman is a Steinway Artist