Music is the key to life for virtuoso

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 2008, 12:00am

Is music really the spice of life? It's that and more for New York-based piano virtuoso Yefim Bronfman.

'Music is a kind of extension to life. It's a natural thing,' he says. 'There are certain inevitable things about life, and there are certain inevitable things about music.

'For instance, the sound of music travels in a circle, it doesn't travel in a straight line. So it's like a life - they are both circular. There is gravity, too. You cannot drop a musical phrase, you have to hold it, make sure it doesn't fall to the ground. It gets very complicated.'

The acclaimed concert pianist should know about the interaction between music and life. Born into a musical family in Uzbekistan, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union, the 50-year-old musician has been sitting behind the keyboard since the age of seven.

His long musical journey led him first to Israel, where he began his career with the Israel Philharmonic, then to New York City.

He attended the Juilliard School of Music, and made his name performing with the New York Philharmonic and has since appeared with orchestras worldwide. In 1991, he was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize, one of the highest honours that a musician can receive.

Hong Kong audiences will hear Bronfman perform Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No1 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the end of the month. This was Tchaikovsky's favourite work for piano, and it's also the composer's best-known piano concerto.

'It's probably the most popular piano concerto ever written,' says Bronfman. 'I find a lot of joy in playing this piece. It's a unique work. Some people take it for granted, but I never do. It's one of the greatest concertos that I've ever played.'

Audiences will also experience the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by its world-renowned musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Bronfman, a friend of the conductor, says he admires the LA Phil's chameleon-like qualities. The orchestra adapts itself to the music it's playing, he says. 'The best orchestras don't have their own sound. When Los Angeles plays Sibelius it's one kind of sound, when it plays Tchaikovsky it's another.

'An orchestra's greatness lies in its ability to change its sound like a chameleon. The LA Philharmonic can adjust its musical language and style with comfort and ease.'

Bronfman is highly regarded for his interpretations of modern Russian composers such as Profokiev, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov but doesn't think his style is particularly Russian.

'I play very differently to other Russian pianists,' he says. 'I play all kinds of music. But Russian music certainly has a gigantic repertoire. There are so many Russian masters - Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev - there is just one genius after another. The sounds are different to those used in German and French music. I enjoy the grandeur of Russian music.'

However, Bronfman also likes to play music on a smaller scale. He regularly performs chamber music, and says the experience is not as different from an orchestral concert as some may think.

'I like to think of playing a concerto as chamber music. The interplay between the piano and the other instruments is always, in a way, chamber music. I can't separate the two. I love chamber music, and I learned a lot about how to listen to an orchestra from it.'

Bronfman is also known for performing piano sonatas. Again, he says there are many similarities with his orchestral work. 'The piano is very orchestral. It's very different from any other instrument. As a pianist, you can play a Brahms sonata and it's almost like commanding an orchestra.

'There are so many different voices, so many different polyphonics, that go on in pieces by great composers. I think of the piano as a very intimate orchestra.

'When I'm playing, I try to create the sound that I think the composer had in mind,' Bronfman says. 'But I'm human, too. If there's conflict in the world rather than peace, serenity and love, I play the same pages in a very different way.'

Yefim Bronfman performs Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No1 in B-flat Minor, Op23 with the LA Philharmonic under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Oct 29, 8pm, HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall, TST, HK$250-HK$780. Inquiries: 2268 7321