Few musicians have forged a closer professional and personal collaboration than that of conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen and pianist Yefim Bronfman. Their regular appearances together performing concertos from the standard repertory have captivated audiences for some 20 years, first during Salonen's 17-season tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and more recently while he's been principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. But that relationship broadened six years ago, when Bronfman gave the premiere of Salonen's Piano Concerto, written for the soloist and commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.
Not long afterward, the pianist began joking with the composer about Salonen's writing another piece for him — this time for piano solo. Now that day has come. On Wednesday, Bronfman returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall for a recital that includes the premiere of Salonen's "Sisar," a six-minute work. (The concert also features music by Brahms, Schumann and Prokofiev.)
But that day was meant to come a lot earlier. "It was supposed to be premiered almost two years ago," Bronfman said over coffee the morning after performing a private recital in Santa Monica in December. "I've had the music since summertime. It was originally meant for a recital at Carnegie Hall. But I don't mind. I kind of expect it. How can you write music just because you have a deadline? You have to be patient with composers."
Salonen, who has something of a reputation for running behind schedule, sounds a bit sheepish about the situation. "Unfortunately I had a really bad flu for a couple weeks, so I couldn't finish it in time," he said by phone from Finland. "But he's had the score for months. It's not a rush job at all — not like the piano concerto was."
The composer's affinity for the pianist is practically boundless. "It's very simple," Salonen said. "He's one of the best pianists and greatest musicians alive. If you stick to the normal number of hands and fingers humans have, then there isn't anything he can't play. For a composer to be able to work with someone like that is a privilege. And he happens to be a very, very close friend. It's inspiring to write for him."
Bronfman calls Salonen's new work "a lovely piece — very difficult, as usual. It's just six minutes, but it seems like an hour." That last remark may sound like an insult, but it's intended as a testament to the piece's richness, its brevity notwithstanding.
"You can immediately hear Salonen's handwriting, so to speak," Bronfman continued. "It has very rhythmic and also introspective elements to it. It's a short piece but with definite structure to it. It's about the same size as Schumann's 'Arabeske'" — which is also on the program — "and in a way it kind of mirrors that, because you can hear the same thing coming back with variations in the middle."
If the music sounds vaguely familiar to L.A. Philharmonic concertgoers, their ears aren't deceiving them. "The name 'Sisar' is actually a pun in two languages," Salonen said. "In Finnish, it means sister; in Spanish, it means to filch. I started writing it while writing 'Nyx'" — his latest work for orchestra, which he conducted at Disney Hall last month.
"It uses a bit of the same material. So I thought it will be the little sister of 'Nyx,' with the stealing aspect self-evident. Most of it's original, but a couple things are taken from the 'Nyx' material and modified for piano."
Though presented as a self-standing work, "Sisar" is ultimately bound to other music. "It's going to be part of a series of piano preludes," Salonen said, "the last in a series of five, totaling about 25 minutes. But this is the most virtuosic. 'Sisar' is basically a happy piece, though it has some nostalgia, and it ends with a question mark."
That question mark could be applied to what Salonen will write next for Bronfman. Certainly the spirit is willing in both men. "I'd like to write a second piano concerto for him," Salonen acknowledged. "Not any time soon, but somewhere down the line."
For his part, the pianist fesses up to having nudged a bit. "I asked him about writing another concerto for me," Bronfman said. "He looked at me and smiled and never responded. But, you know, nagging eventually works."