Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Vengerov: Full of Bull

If, like me, you regard the 31-year-old Maxim Vengerov as one of the greatest musicians ever to wield a bow, I've got news for you: As much as you may admire his Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, you don't know Maxim to the max until you've experienced his hilarious narration and musical portrayal of the beloved children's classic, "Ferdinand the Bull"---the story by Munro Leaf that you read to your children (and that your parents read to you), about the bull who just liked to "sit and smell the flowers."

Last night at, of all places, the Jewish Community Center in Tenafly, NJ, he applied his usual richness of tone and sumptuous expressivity to a program of Mozart, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, all taken from the playlist of his performance last Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

Skipping the Beethoven, he then invited up to the stage the entire student body of the JCC's music school (for which this was a benefit), and proceeded to demonstrate his prodigious acting and comedic skills. His little listeners (whom he had taught earlier that day) were rapt, except when they were giggling, as he reenacted the familiar tale with expressive body language and just the right note of silly whimsy.

As he had throughout the program, he demonstrated his uncanny ability to extract an extraordinary range of sounds from his instrument. Who knew that a violin could issue such a juicy "moo," perfectly capturing Ferdinand's doting mother? (The composition, by no means child's play, was by Alan Ridout.)

Teachers in the audience were scrambling to find out whether they could get a recording, suggesting a strong potential demand out there for a Vengerov children's DVD. If he hasn't already been booked by Sesame Street, he should be.

It was a case of perfect typecasting: Vengerov IS Ferdinand. His beefy looks suggest he should be butting heads with football players, but, instead, he embodies delicate beauty.

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