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An Odyssey from Tashkent to Carnegie Hall: In Conversation with Yefim Bronfman


16 Oct 2007

Yefim Bronfman
photo by Deborah Feingold

Pianist Yefim Bronfman begins a season-long project at Carnegie Hall next week, with the first of seven concerts in his "Perspectives" series. To begin his cycle, on October 23, he plays Brahms's First Piano Concerto with the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. As the season progresses, Bronfman will explore, in both the Stern Auditorium and Zankel Hall, a wide range of repertoire: piano concertos by Mozart and Prokofiev, chamber music by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, contemporary works by Lindberg and Dalbavie, and a solo recital exploring the theme of fantasy. (And that's just a sampling.)

In the conversation that follows, Bronfman discusses (among other things) his choices for his "Perspective" concerts, his commitment to new music, a very thin-skinned conductor and the appeal of Homer's Odyssey.


Q: When people call you a "Russian music specialist," do you feel it's an accurate description or does it feel like you are being forced into a box?

Yefim Bronfman: One of the qualities required for being a musician with a long career is to constantly reinvent yourself, and Russian music is only part of what I am interested in. I think one of the reasons people consider me a "Russian Bear" is that I've recorded a lot of that repertoire for Sony. At first I did it laughingly, [but] I grew with the music a bit and it grew on me — even pieces I didn't automatically think I wanted to record, like the Prokofiev Fifth Sonata. I'm happy I did it, but now I'm doing all kinds of repertoire, and recording all the Beethoven Concertos.

Q: How do you feel about some of your earlier recordings?

YB: Sometimes I wish I could re-record some of these pieces. The lessons come late — and I could imagine re-recording some pieces and doing a better job, but I suppose that's part of recording. All in all, I'm happy that I'm still making recordings today — after all, the industry has become somewhat marginalized.

Q: Let's talk a bit about the repertoire you'll be doing in your "Perspectives" concerts, beginning with those Prokofiev concerti.

YB: I'll be doing the Third with Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw [February 5] and the Second with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic [March 1]. These are two completely different Prokofiev pieces written at very different times in his life. The Third is more French, influenced by Ravel and Poulenc — I always call it a French concerto. The Second Concerto is part of his St. Petersburg period. In a way it's a greater piece — more interesting, original, powerful, and revolutionary.

Q: You're doing four concerti throughout "Perspectives," starting with the Brahms First with Orpheus. Are you nervous about playing such a big piece without a conductor?

YB: Orpheus wanted to do this piece and at first I was reluctant — Mozart, okay, or Beethoven, but Brahms is trickier. They insisted and felt they could do it and I'm open to experiments.

The First Concerto really is a symphony with a piano in it! It's a funny piece that way. Plus, you can play it more like chamber music, which is always a great way to approach Brahms.

I'm going to take a chance. If it's a success, wonderful, if not — well, we tried. Anytime I can prove I can live without a conductor is a good thing!

Q: Who are some of the conductors that you enjoy working with?

YB: There have been so many — Simon Rattle, Mariss Jansons — but I'm afraid to name just a few, because the one I forget to mention will be the first to read this interview and then I'll be in trouble!

Q: Are conductors really that thin-skinned?

YB: Well, I'll tell you a true story about what happened between Erich Leinsdorf and me. It was the early '80s. The New York Philharmonic had a summer gig at C. W. Post University and I was soloist with Leinsdorf. I arrived in the hall very early and Leinsdorf was the only person there. He said, "Bronfman, come here." I reported to his room like a solider: "Is something wrong?" I said. "Who wrote your bio?" "My management," I responded. "I always thought ICM stinks," he said and he slammed the door. It was a tiny bio that listed Bernstein and Mehta and Joe Schmo but no Leinsdorf. And yes, I was his pianist at that time — he engaged me all the time with the great orchestras. And yes, the name was missing! I called ICM the next day, and of course they reported that the promoter had modified the bio considerably: The bio that was sent had his name on it seven times, but they were all cut out! Next day he went to the NY Phil office and canceled me as soloist for next season. And I never played with him again.

Q: You've got to be kidding!

YB: I'm afraid not.

Q: Then maybe we should talk about your solo recital [on December 17].

YB: Yes, this recital is all about fantasy — thankfully, there are so many pieces that are based on fantasies and the concept of the fantasy. Schumann wrote his Fantasy with Beethoven in mind: they were erecting a monument of Beethoven in Bonn, and Schumann wrote it for the occasion. It's very eccentric and a great piece that I just love to play. The opening piece is a Beethoven work — the Sonata No. 13 [subtitled "quasi una fantasia"]. The new Jrg Widmann piece will be sandwiched in between the Beethoven and Schumann.

Q: And the second half of your program?

YB: Balakirev's Islamey is an "Oriental fantasy." When Ravel wrote his Gaspard de la nuit he said he wanted it to be more difficult than Islamey, which had the reputation for being the hardest piece. And he succeeded! To put these back to back will be fun.

Q: Have you ever encountered a piece that was simply too difficult to play?

YB: A C major scale can be difficult depending on what your expectations are!

Q: The Widmann piece you mentioned is a Carnegie Hall commission for this series. How did it come about?

YB: A couple of years ago, I was asked to be part of a world premiere of a piano concerto with Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. They sent me some music by Widmann, who was — and still is — very young. [He was born in 1973.] I listened to the piano disc and fell in love with it; I immediately got in touch with his publisher through my manager. The concerto was canceled and it became an orchestra piece for the VPO instead, but the composer and I met and he's a nice guy and he promised me a piano piece for Carnegie.

Q: Did you give him any particular directives or suggestions?

YB: I don't like to tell composers what kind of piece to write — I tell them to do what they want: five minutes or 45 minutes, that's up to them. The only requirement was that it be a fantasy because that's the idea for this concert.

Q: Do you have particular qualities that you seek out in the composers you choose to work with?

YB: I like to work with people who are nice and with whom I can communicate.

Q: Like Marc-Andr Dalbavie?

YB: I've heard some of his music and really loved it, and I know other artists have done his music in [their] "Perspectives." I met him at the Aspen Festival. The whole trio [Bronfman with violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Truls Mrk, who perform the final Bronfman "Perspectives" concert on May 4] knows him and Aspen wanted to commission a piece for us, so it became a co-commission between Carnegie and Aspen.

Q: If this were an interview with a tabloid newspaper would you have anything shocking to report about your life as an internationally celebrated concert pianist?

YB: I'm the simplest and most normal guy from Tashkent — I don't know what to say!

Q: Did you ever imagine, growing up in Tashkent, that you'd be touring the world as a pianist?

YB: Well, I couldn't imagine that I'd be living in New York City, but I wanted to be a pianist. Tashkent was a very cultural city with many great musicians. Many musicians evacuated to Tashkent during the War, and many stayed there. People don't know the place, but they had an opera house, a symphony ... great concert halls, a strong faculty at the school, and some great piano teachers.

Q: What do you enjoy most when you are not making music?

YB: I love movies. I love spending time with friends. I love to be outdoors — I love nature and try to spend time in it whenever I'm traveling. I love Aspen in the summertime, British Columbia — Vancouver Island. I took a cruise around Alaska last summer.

Q: Besides your family and nature, can you name something outside of music that you feel has had a particularly strong impact on you?

YB: Homer's Odyssey was an eye-opener for me. It was written so long ago but is so modern. The idea of the Journey — that's powerful to me; that's what the human experience is all about and I feel a strong connection, as a traveling musician, to the concerns of this Greek hero. It's a long journey, requiring a lot of fighting spirit, to get from discovering your connection to music to the stage of Carnegie Hall.





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