By Lawrence Budmen

For the past twelve summers James Brooks-Bruzzese, the conductor of the Ft. Lauderdale based Symphony of the Americas, has toured South Florida and abroad with European chamber orchestras. In previous musical outings he has led string ensembles from Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Greece. This year’s edition of Summerfest featured the Arpeggione Chamber Orchestra from Hohenems, Austria. (The historic city of Hohenems was for many years the site of the renowned baritone and conductor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Schubertiad Festival.) The group’s local appearance on July 24 at the Miami Beach Community Church (in a wide ranging program) was part of an extended tour of Europe, South and Central Florida, Brazil, Haiti, and Panama. 

The Austrian ensemble was outstanding – the best of the visiting chamber orchestras that Brooks-Bruzzese has brought to South Florida. In the warm, deeply reverberant church acoustics the players’ rich, honeyed Viennese tone and splendid unanimity of attack produced string sound that was smooth as silk. The chemistry between the excellent players and the conductor’s enlivening presence on the podium created sparkling performances. Brooks-Bruzzese’s personable commentary enhanced the musicians’ rapport with the large, enthusiastic audience. 

Except for an over exaggerated rendition of the Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni (with a loud organ obbligato) the afternoon’s performances were consistently delightful. The orchestra’s crisp articulation in the Violin Concerto in G Major, Opus 3, No.3 by the “Red Priest of Venice” Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was invigorating. Violinist Laszlo Pap, a former member of the Florida Philharmonic, provided bravura string acrobatics and a unique tonal sound compass – at once softly aristocratic and penetrating. Pap’s sprightly version of the Allegro finale was particularly engaging. The ensemble’s lively, invigorating playing of the Concerto Grosso in F Major, Opus 6, No.6 was strongly supported by the elegant keyboard continuo of Renee LaBonte. Organist David C. Dunlap commanded the console in a lithe traversal of the Organ Concerto No.5 in F Major by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759). Dunlap’s subtle musicality and delicately sculptured filigree was a source of constant musical surprise – as if he was composing the work as he played. The lively orchestral support (including La Bonte’s wonderfully creative continuo line) made the music team with life.

The Romance in C, Opus 42 by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was a surprisingly emotional vignette by this usually austere master. Brooks-Bruzzese has always sought out unusual and unfamiliar works. He conducted an eloquent performance of this beautiful score. The conductor was equally persuasive in Crisantemi by the operatic master Giacomo Puccini (1856-1924). The players’ crystalline string tone soared with effervescent transparency. In this early work Puccini penned a theme that he later used in the third act of his first operatic masterpiece Manon Lescaut. As in that glorious romantic opera the melody is deeply moving – foretelling sadness and tragedy. 

The familiar Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was imbued with tremendous intensity. Brooks-Bruzzese reminded the audience that this thrice familiar score was premiered by no less than the legendary Arturo Toscanini (with the NBC Symphony Orchestra). Toscanini’s description of Barber’s music as “semplice e divine” (Simple but beautiful) certainly applied to Brooks-Bruzzese and the Arpeggione Chamber Orchestra’s passionate performance. 

The music of the master of the “Nuevo tango” Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) has crossed over into the classical repertoire in the past decade and rightly so. Piazzolla’s bracing, dissonant harmonies are as much apart of the musical salon of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg as the Argentinean tango tradition. Violinist Alejandro Drago (who studied with members of Piazzolla’s own ensemble) was soloist in his own arrangements of four Piazzolla tangos. Drago is a superb musician who effortlessly combines the classical virtuosity of a Heifetz or Perlman with the suave café style of the late Florian Zabach and the jazzy insouciance of Stephane Grappelli.

Drago’s arrangements for solo violin and strings combined grace with harmonic astringency. Decarissimo was played with rhythmic energy and verve. Drago brought yearning sentimentality and burnished tone to the eternally beautiful Adios Nonino. Oblivion may be Piazzolla’s most sublime work. The austere beauty of this melody seems to make time stand still. Drago’s violin soared above ethereal strings – a magical effect. The violinist concluded with a sparkling version of Calambre that combined idiomatic flair with splashes of tonal ambiguity. As an encore Drago played a solo violin version of the traditional tango La Comparsita. His dazzling version astutely mixed the intricate counterpoint and virtuosic roulades of Bach’s Partitas with the Latin soul of an authentic tango band. The perfect conclusion to a delightful musical divertissement for a summer afternoon!

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