By Lawrence Budmen

James Brooks-Bruzzese’s Symphony of the Americas has rarely sounded better than at its opening concert of the season on October 24 at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater. A generous program of Latin tinged pieces, a jazzy French soufflé, and a Florida premiere made for delightful musical fare. 

The Uruguayan born pianist Enrique Graf was the evening’s star soloist in more ways than one. Graf, an old fashioned virtuoso, possesses a formidable keyboard technique. The most demanding scores hold no terrors for him. A pupil of Leon Fleisher, Graf counts the First Prize in the prestigious William Kapell International Competition among his awards.

In Ravel’s Concerto in G Major, Graf attacked the opening Allegramente with the kind of darting virtuosity and stylistic command that spells great pianism. Eschewing sentimentality, Graf brought Mozartean simplicity of line and phrase to the Adagio assai. (Ravel considered Mozart and Saint-Saens his models for this score; Graf was stylistically apt.) The final Presto brimmed with jazzy effervescence and torrents of virtuosity. Brooks-Bruzzese provided rhythmically energetic, stellar support. The orchestra offered suave playing with particularly brilliant flute and trumpet solos. Charlene Conner’s harp glistened in an extended solo turn in the first movement.

Graf is a faculty member of the College of Charleston. Fellow faculty member Edward Hart wrote his Tidal Concerto for Graf. This sweeping work is a richly romantic piano showpiece with strong roots in the Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff tradition. The work’s opening movement – Ebb – represents the composer at his most imaginative. Austere opening chords (with strong percussive underpinnings) lead to a surging orchestral peroration. A jazz inspired principal theme suggests Dave Brubeck. The final movement – Flood – is grandly cinematic in a quasi Miklos Rozsa manner. Hart’s score is superbly crafted and immediately appealing. It is also a bravura vehicle par excellence. Graf brought conviction, pianistic fireworks, and tremendous passion to every bar. The Symphony of the Americas players offered crackling accompaniment with particularly lush string tone and a rhythmically incisive percussion battery. 

Brooks-Bruzzese led an exhilarating account of Two Dances from the ballet score The Three Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla. The Neighbor’s Dance throbbed with Andalusian color. Sparkling strings and elegant woodwinds weaved a magical spell. Brooks-Bruzzese turned up the heat for The Miller’s Dance which overflowed with instrumental pastels and visceral excitement. The Ritual Fire Dance from Falla’s El Amor Brujo had intensity to spare. 

Best of all was Brooks-Bruzzese’s invigorating performance of Emmanuel Chabrier’s Espana Rhapsody. While Chabrier’s output was comparatively small, he was a superb composer. The conductor reveled in Chabrier’s evocation of Spain. Lush, brilliant bursts of orchestral coloration personified the Symphony of the Americas’ terrific performance. 

As an encore, Brooks-Bruzzese led a lively, elegantly sculpted rendition of Leroy Anderson’s Blue Tango – a wonderful bon-bon to conclude a festive evening of music.

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