Concert Review: Czech National Symphony Orchestra @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 2/18/2023

TROY – Ever think you know a piece of music, but then you hear a performance of it that brings new sensations, ideas, and feelings, that shows you new detail and dynamics?

That’s what the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was designed for and still manages to do wonderfully well as two classics of symphonic music’s Romantic Period proved on Saturday in the hands of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra

Before the Brahms and Beethoven main events, the orchestra offered a spirited appetizer. In the bristling finale of Antonin Dvorak’s Czech Suite, conductor Steven Mercurio literally jumped above the podium (as Beethoven was said to do when he conducted). Mercurio’s aggressive physical style energized this brief dance-y, robust, sunny series of melodic episodes whose variety showed the ensemble cohesive and powerful from the first downbeat.

Next, violinist Robert McDuffie starred in the Violin Concerto of Johannes Brahms, composed in 1878, three years before the Hall opened. Both the Brahms and the Beethoven (composed in 1812) called for identical instrumentation: two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. In other words, the ensemble was right-sized to the Hall’s sloping stage – which cowboy-booted Asleep at the Wheel singer Ray Benson once joked might send him skidding off into the audience. But I digress.

Both the Brahms and the Beethoven were praised and reviled in their times, too. Of the three-movement Brahms – quick, slow, quick – conductor Hans von Bulow complained it was “written not for the violin but against it” while Henryk Wienlawski called it “unplayable.” Soloist McDuffie would quickly disprove this; but when Brahms composed it, he and others were pushing aside the concerto convention of the time, promoting the soloist to a nearly equal footing with the orchestra. The program described this as matching “tender, lyric violin and the robust orchestra.” However, just as McDuffie’s physically vigorous performing matched Mercurio’s, the violin soloist held his own in both the fast movements that book-ended the adagio with muscular, emotive projection and a caressing sweetness in the adagio itself.

At speed, McDuffie dazzled, precise even in blinding-fast runs; in slow passages, he charmed, but with a mature beauty far from the merely pretty. He knew what the music was saying, and he told us.

The concerto’s Allegro non troppo first movement contrasted a sedate orchestral opening with McDuffie’s forceful attack, accentuated with foot-stamping and grimaces like those of Itzhak Perlman, or like guitarist John Mayer on a rock stage. For all its athletic energy, the Allegro also featured a high, soft solo violin passage that made the Hall sing. As the movement ended after an emphatic build-up, applause rang out and a fan called “Thank you!” Both audience expressions are breaches of classical concert hall protocol, but both were also earned.

While the oboe introduced the Adagio, McDuffie reclaimed it confidently, an elegant poetic serenade that ended in a conversation between the soloist and woodwinds.

McDuffie seemed energized by the applause that followed, smiling in fierce happiness as he and the orchestra conversed in the complex dialogs of the closing Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace. This finale included a propulsive march and exuberant cascades of bold unison playing.

Big-time standing ovation.

Beethoven proudly called his Symphony No. 7 “one of my best works,” while composers Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz suggested it evoked “a rustic wedding” and Richard Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance.” (Isadora Duncan created a dance to the last three of its four movements and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo presented a dance version of the entire work. But we digress again.) While the crowd at its premiere (Beethoven conducted) demanded encores of several movements during its performance, it also had its detractors in its own time. Some critics suggested Beethoven composed his 7th while drunk or mad, and later conductor Thomas Beecham said its third movement sounded like “a lot of yaks jumping about.” 

Of course, no yaks were in evidence as the orchestra settled in to play the 7th, and no McDuffie, either. But before launching, Mercurio addressed the audience. “What a beautiful concert hall,” he marveled. Happily greeting children up front, house right, he suggested dancing would be fine, except in the (Allegretto) slow second movement.

As in the Brahms, vigorous opening and closing movements bracket a slower movement. In the opening Poco sostenuto – Vivace, the orchestra articulated its two major themes with bracing clarity, but also a precise attention to detail. As familiar as the 7th has become – and we’ll talk about its usage in popular culture in a minute – Mercurio and his players brought forth elements I hadn’t recognized in earlier listenings. This wasn’t a fussy sort of museum-y perfectionism but instead felt fresh, alive.

The Allegretto, which is sometimes played all by itself, had a lyricism as spellbinding in its stately beauty as the muscular force of the faster movements. And if the Brahms felt like a conversation between soloist and orchestra, the Beethoven exhibited breathtaking dynamic cohesion; even when the horns shone with particular eloquence in the Presto. Mercurio was at his most kinetic in the concluding Allegro con brio. He had lots of brio, jumping up, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his movements qualifying as a sort of rhythmic cardio and reminding why orchestra conductors live longer than practitioners of any other art or profession.

Afterward, Mercurio again turned to address the crowd, noting Beethoven’s name painted on the ceiling imposed a certain responsibility. He modestly omitted any claim to have fulfilled it, but the cheering crowd knew. Mercurio then rewarded the applause with two brief encores, as unusual in concert halls as applause between movements or shout-outs. 

The first was an explosive, cinematic fragment by young Canadian Logan Jones. Called “Big Bang,” I think, this relentless, driving outburst raced like Sun Ra portraying a locomotive and ended with thunderous, pulsating timpani rolls.

Next, noting their long collaboration with Italian spaghetti Western film-score composer Ennio Morricone, and that they’d won Morricone’s first-ever Oscar for Quentin Tarantino’s film “The Hateful Eight,” Mercurio led the orchestra into “Gabriel’s Oboe.” This mellow reverie featured, yes, the oboe; and it felt like sipping a soothing cordial after a lot of caffeine.

The Czech National Symphony Orchestra, its musical director Steven Mercurio and violinist Robert McDuffie have built remarkably varied careers by collaborating with a wide range of artists in jazz, popular music and film-making. However,  they honor the classical tradition faithfully and, well, con brio.


McDuffie and several other violinists wore their wedding bands on their right hands. 

Everyone on stage wore black. The men wore tuxes with black bow ties – except for Mercurio in a collar-less shirt and no tie, and McDuffie in a banker suit and black long tie. The women had more latitude, one cellist in an off-one-shoulder formal number, a violinist in plain skirt and top.

At the end, many of the players turned to their colleagues and shook hands, smiling and looking rightly pleased.

Out in the audience – which seemed scanty at first but filled quickly just before the 7:30 p.m. start – fans wore everything from dark suits and cocktail dresses to blue jeans and down jackets.


First, Brahms: Alicia Keys’s 2004 song “Karma” samples the violin’s entrance in the first movement and the third movement – there originally were four – is used in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “There Will Be Blood.”

Then the Beethoven: Bits of the 7th Symphony have appeared in films since 1934 including “Zardoz,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” “The King’s Speech” and “X-Men: Apocalypse.”


Back in the day, WAY back in the day, I wrote for Don Wilcock’s pioneering arts weekly Kite; before the Gazette, before Metroland – long before Nippertown. 

When I asked to review a classical concert back in the early 1970s, I got Don’s surprised and surprising OK. My story ran with a clever composite illustration. In a background borrowed from Aubrey Beardsley, posh, bony Brits stand around an elegant drawing room in antique formal garb haughtily ignoring each other. Racing across the foreground in dust-raising haste strides R. Crumb’s cheerfully barbaric cartoon hipster Mr. Natural in long beard, swirling robe and avid air of socially incongruous joy.

Naturally this meant me, the hairy rock writer whose reviews to that point were of Jethro Tull, the Faces and Pink Floyd.

I first heard Pink Floyd on Friday night of a 1972 Carnegie Hall weekend, along with the Chicago Symphony led by Georg Solti Saturday evening and Leopold Stokowski conducting the American Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon. 

And I often volunteered setting up microphones and stringing cable at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and Union College Memorial Chapel for the inimitable Milton Zapolski, the late and great DJ, to record orchestras for WMHT. Imagine two sweaty guys hanging four microphones in an airy trapezoid of ropes from one high seating box to another as fans troop in and trip over the microphone wires. After we had hung our microphones from ropes spanning wall sconces in the Memorial Chapel, the conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra came down to us and humbly asked permission to rehearse their program. Yes, indeed, maestro. That’s when I first heard Pachelbel’s Canon, in an audience of two.

In August, two days after my birthday, I’ll see the Philadelphia Orchestra play Symphony No. 5 by Dmitry Shostakovich, my favorite symphonic work; I have eight recordings of it.

Am I still Mr. Natural? 

Well, let me say here that I prepped for this assignment by listening repeatedly to both main pieces the Czech National Symphony played Saturday, and I consulted maestro Google, a great friend to out-of-our lane writers everywhere.

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