Yefim Bronfman may make his living by playing big, exciting concertos -- such as the Liszt A Major Concerto he will perform tonight, tomorrow and Sunday with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- but his career hasn't been the kind that makes people talk. That's to say that for the Russian-Israeli-American pianist there have been no splashy competition victories, no outrageous concert platform demeanor (no punk hairdos or outfits for him!), and no interpretive idiosyncrasies that have made him the object of a cult following. He's the piano world's steady Eddie.
In fact, it may come as a shock that Bronfman is still so young -- he's only 33 -- because he seems to have been around forever. Since 1976, when he made his New York debut with Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic, he's built his career slowly and surely and now ranks as one of the world's most important pianists, with an impressive (and growing) discography on Sony Records. While other pianists' stars have risen and fallen, his has continued to shine.
"I've been around for 16 years and -- these days, anyway -- I guess that makes me an old-timer," the pianist says in a telephone conversation. "It's hard to believe that it all went so quickly."
But if it seems that way it's because he was so busy. He's had his share of lucky breaks -- not every teen-age musician gets "discovered" by Isaac Stern and makes a New York debut with Bernstein -- but Bronfman achieved his current stature because he has combined a considerable talent with a deserved reputation for dependability.
"It wasn't planned like this," Bronfman says. "No two careers are made the same way. I got good advice from my manager -- she let me develop at my own pace and didn't let me do anything until I was ready -- and also from people like Stern, [Zubin] Mehta and [Vladimir] Ashkenazy."
One of the pieces of advice he received from his mentors was not to enter a competition.
"I already had a few good dates, and I was lucky to have played with Bernstein -- that really opened up things for me," he says.
But where most young pianists would have seized on that early success, the 18-year-old Bronfman showed his strength of character. He went back to school, enrolling at Juilliard but commuting to Baltimore once a week to study with Leon Fleisher, in whose pedagogic crucible another teen-aged sensation -- the young Andre Watts -- had been transformed into a mature, dependable artist.
"He's the most important influence on me -- he's affected the way I think as well as the way I play," Bronfman says about Fleisher. "What made him terrific was that he always made me feel that I could do things for myself. That's what makes him a truly great teacher -- he doesn't make you depend on anyone but yourself, making you use your mind rather than his."
Bronfman had learned to depend on himself from the beginning. He was born in Tashkent in the former Soviet Union to musician parents. Because he did not leave the Soviet Union until 1973, he was subjected to rigorous Russian musical training, the best in the world for children. And because he was a Jew he had to deal with other factors that he says were beneficial to his development.
"Suppression helps talent," Bronfman says bluntly. "And as a Jew, I felt I had to be twice as good as anyone else. And because there was so little to do in pre-perestroika Russia -- except to develop oneself -- that added another incentive."
After leaving Juilliard in 1982, Bronfman began playing more and more important concerts, with ever more important orchestras, always being asked to return. In the middle 1980s, he made his first records -- as a collaborator with his violinist friends Shlomo Mintz and Robert Mann. Then in 1987, he made his first solo album for Sony -- a recording of Prokofiev's Sonatas Nos. 7 and 8 that got rave reviews and led Sony to sign Bronfman to an exclusive contract that has resulted in other acclaimed records, including cycles-in-progress of all the sonatas and concertos of Prokofiev and the concertos of Bartok, and that will eventually include major works by Chopin and Brahms.
But Bronfman makes records the way he conducts the rest of his life -- so don't expect these records to be released overnight.
"I don't learn music to make records -- I learn it to live with it," says the pianist, who studied the Prokofiev works for eight years before recording them.
"For many things there are no shortcuts," he adds pensively, "you just need time."