Steven Mercurio leads the Czech National Symphony with operatic fervor in orchestral classics

United StatesUnited States Dvořák, Brahms, Beethoven: Robert McDuffie (violin), Czech National Symphony Orchestra / Steven Mercurio (conductor). New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, 19.2.2023. (DS)

Czech National Symphony Orchestra © NJPAC

Dvořák – Czech Suite in D Major, Op.39 (Finale)
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.77
Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op.67

As a New York City concertgoer, I will typically walk or ride the subway to my destination. But oft forgotten is the easy proximity of New Jersey-based performances. NJPAC is a vast, three-tiered hall that is both well-attended and easily accessible, and a 20-minute ride from New York’s Penn Station will get you to Newark. After arriving at the 1930s train station designed by McKim, Mead & White, it is worth lingering in the recently refurbished historic foyer before a short walk to the performance center. This past weekend, it was worth the trip to hear the visiting Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steve Mercurio with guest soloist, Robert McDuffie.

The concert stuck to big-name composers – Dvořák, Brahms and Beethoven – and the delivery was by no means tedious. They set out to present them as storytellers and achieved that every step of the way. From the opening notes of the first work on the program – the Finale from Dvořák’s Czech Suite – Mercurio and the orchestra struck an exquisite balance of delicate ensemble playing with well-placed bursts of fervor. The oboe’s solo had a child-like charm that gave it a nineteenth-century playroom feeling, and the building excitement in the folk-dance figures was played with smooth, hearty boldness. As my companion remarked, the orchestra blossomed with a stately sound. Mercurio is lively and sociable – he brought the work to its final beat while simultaneously leaping with a quick turn to the audience to smile and bow.

Robert McDuffie © NJPAC

McDuffie joined to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto. Before imagining the typical virtuosic rendition (it is, after all, an orchestral audition requirement heard regularly in practice rooms), clear your mind of any interpretations you might expect. McDuffie threw out tradition and decided he would relish every chordal change, every passage, every mood change. He took to heart the ‘Non troppo’ marking of the first movement, Allegro non troppo, and nearly left out the ‘Allegro’. McDuffie captured the depths of sweetness and melancholy that partner throughout the piece in an unhindered way I have not heard before. For the orchestra, it was not an easy interpretation to follow, but soloist and conductor made for strong collaborators – communicating not just with glances and gestures but with squats, lunges and a whole array of seemingly choreographed movements that kept everyone together. McDuffie’s cadenza was loose and full of humor as well as unafraid to take twentieth-century stylistic and tonal turns, including a quick tuning of the E-string at one opportune moment.

The following two movements were no less experimental. While maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, in the Adagio, McDuffie highlighted the modernist in Brahms by pulling the melody out over unusual phrase lines that gave a new sound to an old classic. Was there too much rubato? I would say there was, at times, but the pleasure of the experience was letting McDuffie lead the way.

The final movement – Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – was all ‘giocoso’. Plyometric movements returned for both soloist and conductor as they carried the piece as much with their bodies as their hands. Perfection was sometimes thrown out for the sake of having a grand old time. Refreshingly, McDuffie did not play the movement like a scherzo, which many other musicians lean towards. Instead, his interpretation read like a true telling of ‘that time Brahms just let go’ – something not typical of this Hamburg native’s reticent personality. McDuffie lingered on the last measures and played the final four notes with supremely long pauses, which he paired with a squint a and smile at the audience. This was McDuffie’s Brahms and no one else’s.

The concert closed with Beethoven’s Fifth. After a slightly rocky start, which one can forgive as this is arguably the most challenging opening to any symphony, the players settled in by the second theme. What then unfolded was exciting, bold and riveting. Mercurio has been an operatic conductor for much of his career and knew how to bring out character, plot, climax and resolution in the work. It reminded listeners that Beethoven wrote for opera, and we heard the tale told at every turn – from purposefully naïve lyrical textures in the second movement to the bassoon’s solo, delivered like a character strutting out on stage, in the third.

By the closing, one envisioned a carnival of humanity on stage – Beethoven’s Fifth exuding both the exhilaration of being alive and the humility of knowing it all must eventually end. Wielding his baton like a baseball bat at the bottom of the ninth inning, Mercurio unabashedly tore through the last notes of the symphony and was appropriately greeted with resounding ‘Bravos’ from across the hall.

Mercurio came back to introduce an encore, which was most welcome as a cooldown after the larger-than-life Beethoven. They played the simple and marvelous ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ by Enrico Morricone, with whom the orchestra had a long-standing relationship. Rightly, it highlighted the talents of the orchestra’s principal oboist, and it provided even more material to an already memorable concert.

Daniele Sahr

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