By Lawrence Budmen 

The Marcus Roberts Trio lit up the stage of University of Miamiís Gusman Hall on Saturday at the opening of the 23rd annual Festival Miami. The dynamic threesome offered a genuine event Ė George Gershwinís Concerto in F in an improvisatory, reconfigured version that combined the classical and jazz worlds with a 21st century perspective. 

Roberts, an absolute master of jazz piano, did not offer the concerto as Gershwin originally conceived it and that was all to the good. The composerís 1925 effort is a heavy handed attempt at a classical keyboard concerto that lacks formal structure and cohesion, and is saved only by Gershwinís inspired melodies. While Robertsís adaptation incorporates Gershwinís torchy melodies and frequently sparkling orchestration, he has dispensed with much of the rest and substitutes his own brand of hot, freewheeling jazz virtuosity. His version offered grace without sentimentality; rhythmic power without vulgarity. 

Robertsís boldly imaginative reinvention of the second movement Adagio evoked the blues far more potently than most straightforward readings ever could. His mastery of stride piano and fleet finger work turned the finale into a fiery display indeed. When the final barrage of keyboard fireworks arrived, this pianist was not lacking in digital dexterity. In many ways, Robertsís fusion of classicism and vernacular elements fulfilled the composerís original ambitions. 

Roberts was seconded by his sizzling backup group. The brilliant percussion riffs of Jason Marsalis (from one of Americaís distinguished musical families) provided driving rhythmic support. Ronald Guerin on bass dovetailed Robertsís keyboard line with suave interplay. Thomas Sleeper captured the musicís quintessential American drive and energy and drew strong, precise playing from the students of the Frost Symphony Orchestra. 

Two works by Roberto Sierra opened the program. These performances completed a traversal of this composerís symphonies that began with last seasonís Festival Miami premiere of Sinfonia No.2 (Gran Passacaglia). Unlike that astringent, masterfully crafted score, the Sinfonias Nos. 1 and 3 are glossy orchestral displays that tend to substitute superficial effects for substance. Sinfonia No.3 (La Salsa) is appealing light concert fare. 

Sleeper drew remarkable performances from his student forces who surmounted the intricate complexities of Sierraís music with flying colors. 

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