When the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra ended tonight's programme at the MITO festival with Dvořák's Symphony no.9, they drew an uproarious applause that felt as if it would never peter. Indeed, ovation segued into what has become Milanese tradition - the collective stomping of feet that accelerates into a babel – which consequently stirred conductor Jiří Bělohlávek to oblige us with an encore: "Dance of the Comedians" from Smetana's Bartered Bride, where the violins' semi-quavers were full of froth and drive. This programme of local offerings showed off the Czech Philharmonic in resplendent form, and it went down a treat with the Milanese audience. 

Jiří Bělohlávek © Martin Kabát
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Martin Kabát
MITO is Milan and Turin's wonderfully eclectic joint music festival, now in its 8th consecutive year and drawing together the best of the international and local music scenes, where audiences spill into major concert halls and smaller fringe venues for a musical smorgasbord ranging from classical to jazz to pop. With over 100 concerts on offer in each of the respective cities throughout a two week period, tonight's performance is likely to stand out as one of the festival's highlights. 

Like the encore that followed it, Dvořák's Symphony no. 9 was not short of froth and drive, though here it was the more plaintive moments that stood out. When the Czech Philharmonic performed the "New World Symphony" in their inaugural concert in 1896,  Dvorák spoke to the orchestra of their "honest" and "encouraging" sound. Perhaps he was referring to the rugged directness we heard tonight, where reedy winds and guttural strings are married to an all round extrovert outlook to lend a feeling of rural rusticity. The beautiful Largo, thought by many to be representative of the American prairies, had solo cor anglais atop a bed of earthy strings - far from the romantic schmaltz often heard in this section. Dvořák's 9th may be a symphony "from the New World", but there were portions tonight that felt undeniably Czech.

Perhaps no orchestral piece is more capable of evoking Czech national pride than Semtana's Ma Vlast, the most recognisable movement of which closed tonight's first half with a flourish. Vltava, written when the composer was almost completely deaf, charts the river Vltava's journey through Bohemian woods and meadows in other-worldly sonic terms, and in this orchestra's hands it was vividly descriptive. Trickling tributaries on flute and clarinet built to frothing runs from the strings before the violins broadened out in a gloriously proud rendition of the famous tune based on the Italian renaissance song La Mantova. The orchestra caused a rumpus, physically as well as aurally, when we reached Smetana's depiction of the peasants' dance, the airwaves above the orchestra becoming a maelstrom of uncoordinated bows. This transmogrified into a a silvery stillness for the "Dance of the Water Nymphs", where violins spun a veil of sound that blew in a nocturnal breeze. 

The players of the Czech Philharmonic displayed a supreme flexibility that, when combined with their utter musical commitment, produced an ever-present nascent energy. Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek manipulated the reins with the slightest of movements, creating new colours in an instant - his relationship with the orchestra goes back to the 1970s, and there was much mutual understanding on show. But more than simple musical affinity, there was something devotional in the orchestra's sound, the likes of which it seemed could only stem from a deep emotional connection with the music. 

Smetana played a key role in the overflowing of national spirit that was the 1850s "Czech Revival" and out of which emerged the Prague National Theatre and its orchestra. When Smetana was conductor of that orchestra, Dvořák was one of its players, doubtless eager to learn all he could from "father of Czech music". This orchestra would become the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, whom the Nazis later unsuccessfully denied the right to play Ma Vlast due to its deeply nationalistic properties. Today, this proud and determined musical heritage seemingly lives on, running through the orchestra's veins and producing music making as passionate as it is accomplished. 

Nowhere was the playing more exciting than in Janácek's Sinfonietta, the 1926 piece dedicated to the Czech national air force by a composer described by Sir Charles Mackerras as "the first minimalist composer". Motley players delighted in idiosyncratic orchestrations, the third movement's depiction of the Old Brno Monastery more a teeming forest than the usual tranquil oasis. Variegated slides of music faded into one another seamlessly, building up to exhilarating, gruff climaxes that chafed the ear. Twelve brass players flared rudely in the opening fanfare, very effective in the open, precise acoustic of the Teatro degli Arcimboldi. To hear this orchestra in this repertoire was an exhilarating experience. Judging by the collective cheering and foot-stomping, others were thinking the same.

*****