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Kanye’s Antidote: On Yefim Bronfman, Fame and Humility

Kanye’s Antidote: On Yefim Bronfman, Fame and Humility

The star pianist Yefim Bronfman performs in New York often, but I have never seen him. That was rectified last night: I caught him in the first of three concerts with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. He was remarkable. Performing Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, he captured the full range of emotions in the piece–its subtle bits of humor, the breezy wistfulness, the heroic ambition–without drawing much attention to himself.

Humility is Bronfman’s trademark, rare for a pianist with his achievements. The Grammy awards he’s won and the close friendships he’s nurtured–with Emanuel Ax, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leon Fleisher, to name a few–put him at the pinnacle of classical music elite. But hearing him play last night, I began to wonder whether his humility was more than just the typical kind you find in celebrities: the false humility that’s more a learned habit, acquired after fame, so as not to sully your image.

It’s not. Or at least that’s what I gather from reading about Bronfman’s background. He told the Independent almost a decade ago that the source of his frequently noted understatement stems from his Jewish past. Bronfman was born in Soviet Russia, in 1958, when anti-semitism emerged as a new and potent force.

Both his parents were Jewish refugees of the Holocaust: his mother, a pianist, fled Poland during the war, and his father, a violinist, was drafted into the Red Army as a resident of Odessa. His father was captured by the Nazis, but escaped amid a POW march between camps. He "rolled into a ditch and stayed there all night," Bronfman told the Independent, then walked for a month to Moscow. Emaciated, he was briefly imprisoned again by the Soviets before being released.

Bronfman and his older sister were born in Tashkent, and both had their own experience with anti-semitism. The Soviet conservatory had a two-percent maximum quota for Jews, but both Bronfman children got in. When their parents had won permission to emigrate to Israel in 1973, their teachers taunted them. "Aged 14," Bronfman recalled, and "I was called a traitor in front of my 600 classmates."

Bronfman studied briefly at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv before winning a scholarship to The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, under the mentorship of Leon Fleisher. (The scholarship came from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, which started the careers of everyone from Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman to Pinchas Zukerman and Miriam Fried.) He also trained at the Juilliard School and has lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan ever since.

The irony is that when he was first making name for himself, his record label executives at Sony tried to pigeon hole him as their champion of Russian music. For about a decade in the 1980s, Prokofiev became Bronfman’s calling card.

But as his renown grew, he began picking his own music. He has no problem with Russians–Prokofiev and Shostokavich are still staples–but his range far exceeds them. He feels equally at home with Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven, and even contemporary composers like Jorg Widmann and Salonen.

Then of course there’s Brahms. You have two more nights to hear Bronfman play him live. Go.

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