Maxim Vengerov seemed to channel the finest features of Russian violin playing dating back to the great David Oistrakh (1908-1974)

By Scott Cantrell, November 22nd 2019 The Dallas Morning News

The program ranged from Bruch’s romantic G minor Violin Concerto to Prokofiev’s ambiguous Sixth Symphony.

Composed over eight decades, the three pieces in Thursday night’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert could hardly have been more different.

Max Bruch’s 1866 G minor Violin Concerto is German romanticism in fullest flower.

Maurice Ravel’s 1924 violin showpiece Tzigane is a French sendup of Roma song and dance. Sergei Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony epitomizes the musical and emotional ambiguities of war-scarred Russian modernism.

Continuing the DSO’s new and commendable promotion of women conductors, the concert brought the Chinese-American Xian Zhang to the podium. Currently music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Zhang has held other conducting positions with major orchestras in England and Italy.

In the Bruch, Maxim Vengerov seemed to channel the finest features of Russian violin playing dating back to the great David Oistrakh (1908-1974). He could draw a huge but finely focused and polished sound from his ex-Kreutzer Stradivarius, but also the sweetest and most delicate pianissimos. He dispatched virtuoso passages with seemingly effortless élan but shaped lyric music with a fine singer’s sensitivity.

His was a noble performance, and Zhang coordinated skilfully. But her often oversized gestures weren’t always helpful to the orchestra, and they were distracting to watch from the audience.

Those soft wind chords in the first movement might have sounded together with much smaller and more precise beats. Extravagant flailing whipped up climaxes out of proportion to the music at hand.

Vengerov sounded like a different violinist — appropriately so — in the Ravel, although no less brilliant. His tone here was earthier, with a more prominent vibrato and the occasional stylish slide.

The Prokofiev doesn’t immediately give up its secrets. Composed in the aftermath of a war that had killed 26 million Russians, it’s an understandably ambiguous mix of musical gestures and emotional states. After a great flowering of progressive Soviet arts and literature in the 1920s, creators now were threatened with exile or even death if Stalin’s apparatchiks deemed their work insufficiently affirming and uplifting.

Prokofiev’s family life had disintegrated, and his health was precarious.

The symphony’s moods range from eerily unsettled to mocking to at least ostensibly playful. The rejoicing seems a bit forced, even desperate. Just when you think you’ve got a hook on a theme, it veers off into unpredictable territory. Tick-tock and rum- te-tum gestures sometimes punctuate the progress.

Moments echo idioms from the composer’s Romeo and Juliet music. At the end, horrid clashes of dissonance are dismissed with the briefest and almost offhand resolution.

“What just happened?” you ask. Even in the Prokofiev, more physical reserve on the podium might have been helpful, but Zhang clearly had the measure of the piece.

She paced it knowingly and aptly managed its sometimes complex textures. The orchestra delivered an account gripping through every twist and turn.