Wednesday night Chad and I caught up at Max's before heading over to Davies to hear Yefim Bronfman play the first Brahms piano concerto. It was unusually crowded (the penultimate performance of the brilliant Makropulos Case was also taking place that night across the street) and there was a blonde I knew I'd seen before at the far right of the bar and to my left a brunette I had the same issue with, who was seated with a man in a bow tie some years her senior who I'm pretty sure works for the opera to her left. Sometime between the first time I noticed her and midway through her meal the brunette had perfectly applied a very red lipstick to her mouth. The things I notice can be quite strange- I suppose the things I remember a day and a half later are even stranger. I had the black bean soup which was pretty good- Chad had a salad, two beers and a whiskey straight up. A perfectly balanced meal.

Entering Davies I was pleased to see what looked like a very well-sold house, at least from the orchestra level. Whether this was due to the program (Brahms and Berg), Bronfman's appearance or the timing of a concert before a four-day weekend for most people was hard to discern. My interest in the program was primarily Bronfman, who has become a don't-miss performer for me over the past few years, even though it seems like he just performed this piece here last year. Turns out I was wrong- he last performed Brahms' first two seasons ago- last season it was Brahms' second I think, before he returned later in the spring to turn in some amazing performances during the Schubert/Berg smackdown last spring (Berg won, by the way).

Fima Bronfman- photo by Dario Acosta

 Bronfman intrigues me- for starters, he's the most laid back-looking musician of his stature there is. As he strides onstage he almost looks out of place. He doesn't look like a musician- he looks like the postman delivering a package or a butcher bringing you a tasty cut of meat. What I mean by that is he's going to deliver the goods, but his manner is one of delivery, knowing he's only the intermediary, not the creator, and he has an air of humility inherent to being the middleman.

I also appreciate he doesn't tour with only one piece to play, as many musicians do, taking his Brahms from stage to stage around the world. I checked his schedule- he hasn't played the piece since last March- in the meantime he's been performing the Beethoven 1,2,3 & 5th (!) concertos, Lizst's 2nd, all three Bartok's, Tchaikovsky's 1st, Brahms' 2nd, Prokofiev's 2nd, numerous solo recitals and a few gigs with Pinchas Zuckerman where they played Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms sonatas. From here he's on his was to play Rachmaninoff's 3rd and Salonen's 1st, which was written for him. That's a helluva schedule.

And yet here he shows up and plays the Brahms 1st in a way that was completely unexpected. It's so easy (and typical) to hear Brahms played with blustering, forceful Romanticism. Bronfman did none of that. He performed with a deliberate, articulated approach that was never rushed, never flamboyant and brought out all of the yearning in the score without calling attention to it. Despite silently talking to himself, closing his eyes at certain passages and finishing lines with a flourish of his hands and a glance at Michael Tilson Thomas as if to say "now it's your turn, Mikey- take it away!" Bronfman's tempo was slower than one might have expected, but this allowed him to make every note count, creating drama from the music, not from his performance. This was evident from his earliest solos in the first movement, where Brahms has the piano enter with gentle music requiring the listener to focus their attention in place of the usual robust fanfare announcing the soloist is now ready to show off. When it was over, I marvelled at the almost complete silence in the room- very little coughing, throat-clearing or other obnoxious noise so commonly heard between movements. Just a kind hushed silence from the crowd, waiting to hear more.

The second movement was even lovelier, the adagio taken at a slow, almost elegiac pace but without a trace of solemnity at all. When it ended, someone in the audience sneezed and as if on cue, Bronfman turned and very quietly said "Bless you."

The third movement brought it home with a vibrant, rhythmic close during which smiles appeared on many  faces of the members of the orchestra, who were also obviously enjoying the fact that once again, Bronfman killed it. He got a hearty standing ovation and Michael Tilson Thomas looked thrilled when it was all over. Bronfman on the other hand, had a pleased, almost bemused smile on his face, but it didn't reveal more than the deep satisfaction of a job well-done.

This was the second half of the concert by the way, unusually scheduled for the guest soloist to take the stage after the intermission. The first half was Brahm's Academic Festival Overture, which came off as a lightweight piece of opening filler, followed by the first SFS performances of Three Pieces of the Lyric Suite by Berg. MTT always manages to make Berg interesting, though I'm always left with the impression he's as mystified as the audience often is with one of the 20th Century's most intriguing composers. This piece, originally written in six pieces for a quartet, had a number of compelling moments for the strings-only orchestra, especially the middle section which at times sounded to me like a million scurrying insects (not a bad thing- just an unusual one). Chad thought it too close to "film music." The audience gave it a lukewarm reception.

Afterwards, we ended up at Urban Tavern after discovering First Crush was closed for some inexplicable reason. Miss Trixie, what's going on? Even though it's part of the Hilton, the bartender at UT makes a mean Manhattan and the bar menu has some pretty tasty stuff. It also had the benefit of being a relatively quiet place where we could have a chat without having to yell- something now a rarity in all but the diviest of bars in downtown at 11:00 pm.

Bronfman and the Symphony will be performing the same program Friday and Saturday night. Get a ticket.