Thursday, June 8, at Prudential Hall, in Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) put on quite a concert for an under-attended but boisterous matinée crowd. Powerhouse Maestra Xian Zhang led with steely finesse a searing Shostakovich Fifth Symphony and, with veteran soloist Yefim Bronfman, a robust, yet sublime reading of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. Afterward, Xian Zhang—in an exclusive interview with Blasting News, from the comfort of her backstage dressing room—gave fascinating insights on both works, a generous gesture as she was very jet-lagged from her arrival from Milan just this Tuesday.

'Fima' a favorite

With Brahms, conductor Xian Zhang and soloist Yefim Bronfman exuded deep mutual respect. Backstage, she enthused over her prior performances with “Fima”; with practically encyclopedic recall she rattles off the when's and where's and who-were-there's. “With some players it almost feels like you’re actually breathing together. Fima’s decisions during rehearsals and performances are very wise.” With some soloists she has to work harder, but with him “it really feels like play.”

Enthusiastic audience

Numerous audience members spontaneously applauded the grand final flourish of the concerto’s magisterial opening movement.

Yefim Bronfman, from the bench, acknowledged the accolade mouthing “thank you” while sweetly blowing a kiss to the audience. Fewer applauded when the second movement ended just about as grandly, so Xian Zhang turned from the podium briefly and motioned as if to elicit more. “I don’t mind applause between movements,” she said backstage, “not at all.

In fact I encourage it.” So now we know where she stands on that controversial topic.

Robust, sublime pianism

Brahms’ concerto certainly is a workout. Yefim Bronfman makes it seem so easy, dispatching two-handed trills and massive octaval chords up and down the keyboard, in passages alternating between robust bombast and sublime ethereality of the finest filigree, à la Chopin.

During a curtain call, Mr. Bronfman took a special bow with Principal Cellist Jonathan Spitz. And no wonder. The opening of the concerto’s third movement with its warm cello solo morphing into a piano duet is breathtaking in both artists’ hands.

A question of balance

In the final two minutes of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony’s finale, violins play a seemingly endless ostinato of pulsating high A’s, ever slicing away in dissonance to the main melodic themes. “That’s what Shostakovich called ‘forced rejoicing,’” Xian Zhang explains, lunging forward in her seat on the sofa, and rhythmically pounding the granite coffee table with her right fist. ‘It’s like having a stick and beating someone and telling them: You will be happy or I will keep beating you.’

Introductory comments

Cellist Frances Rowell provided commentary before the program.

She explained that with his Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich thumbed his nose at Joseph Stalin because the dictator, two years earlier, had dissed Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” calling it “too modern,” among numerous other less-pleasant epithets. Stalin tried to destroy him. The Fifth Symphony was his riposte, saying, ‘Okay, if you want it all stodgy and old-fashioned, here’s what I can do while wearing that corset.’

Incandescent, explosive symphony

Shostakovich’s symphony’s first movement contains the requisite Soviet military march, with rat-a-tat-tapping snare drum, thundering timpani and crashing cymbals. But the music obviously sneers: the composer allows a tubby tuba to carry the melody with none-too-heroic verve.

The second movement is a massive ländler-with-a-hiccup in the best Mahlerian style. The largo’s shimmering violin tremolo creates suspense for subsequently wailing cellos, obviously mourning a deeply-felt loss, to gut-wrenching effect. “If done correctly,” says Xian Zhang, “it should make you weep.” And this definitely happened Thursday. The fourth-movement finale virtually explodes with searing sonorities, braced by seven percusores percussing on 12 percussion instruments, including bass drum, tam-tam, bells, xylophone and celeste.

Where to next?

After repeating the concert program Friday, June 9–Sunday, June 11, Xian Zhang is off to Beijing. There she leads China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra and American soprano Renée Fleming in a June 24th concert of opera arias, art songs and Broadway show tunes. The program includes several numbers that Ms. Fleming spectacularly performed Nov. 4, 2016, at NJPAC, when she appeared with chief collaborator, pianist Gerald Martin Moore. Three continents in two weeks --how can the maestra overflow with energy against so much jet lag?

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, through June 11, NJPAC, 1 Center Street, Newark, N.J., and elsewhere.