For 26 seasons now, James Brooks-Bruzzese has led members of his Symphony of the Americas and guest musicians from around the globe in a musical Summerfest that always includes performances in his native Panama.
On Aug. 5 at the University Theatre on the campus of Florida Atlantic University, he and the group were back for another summer appearance, accompanied as they have been for some years now by Lorenzo Turchi-Floris, an Italian composer, conductor and pianist. The orchestra that night was a string orchestra of about 20 players, and a relatively good one.
Brooks-Bruzzese, usually a gregarious and talkative host as he introduces these programs, was noticeably struggling physically as he came on stage, walking slowly and carefully, and he made almost no remarks to the audience except to say that he was grateful he wasn’t going to have to because so much of the program was familiar. He also sat on a high stool instead of standing, and one hopes he’s soon able to recover his former mobility.
But once ensconced in his cockpit, he led things with a firm hand and swift tempos, starting with a crisp version of Vaughan Williams’ catchy Sea Songs march, followed by an abridged arrangement by Jamin Hoffman for school orchestras of that same composer’s Tallis Fantasia, which was attractive but had little of the breadth and ecstatic force that the full piece, or a larger group (it’s originally scored for double string orchestra) would provide.
More English music followed, with a skillful Turchi-Floris arrangement of Elgar’s early salon trifle, Salut d’Amour, preceded by a straightforward reading of the Minuet from Mendelssohn’s early Sinfonia No. 8, one of a dozen short symphonies for string orchestra he cranked out from the ages of 12 to 14.
The first half ended with Turch-Floris’s short work for piano and orchestra, Tarantango, which was written for this group five years ago and is built around the competition between a tarantella and a tango that ends up in a melded theme. It’s a non-problematic work, well-constructed and well-written, though the themes are not particularly distinctive and it owes a strong debt to Rachmaninov. The modest audience at the theater appeared to enjoy it, giving it strong applause.
The Italian guitarist Alessio Nebiolo was the guest soloist on the second half in the familiar Vivaldi Guitar Concerto, actually a concerto for lute (in D, RV 93), whose second movement has been repurposed for things such as radio channel theme music and wine commercials. Nebiolo is a fine player, with an accurate, tasteful style that gave this music the kind of intimate elegance for which Vivaldi surely was aiming. Turchi-Floris conducted, with admirable sensitivity.
Brooks-Bruzzese returned to the stage for an arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero, arranged for this group by concertmaster Orlando Forte, and performed to a recorded percussion track. Without the varied instrumental colors that were a key reason for writing it the way he did, the audience had to fall back on Ravel’s sinuous tunes, which were a hit with them regardless. The formal portion of the concert closed with another Forte arrangement, this one of the Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango, which came off reasonably well given its missing colors.
Two encores came next: The title tune from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical Cabaret, and the “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. Both were dispatched handily, on a program that resembled the lineup of a community band concert more than a standard one for an orchestra, even one featuring only strings.
The playing was respectable at all times, if not particularly subtle, and the audience clearly enjoyed its variety. But it may be wondered whether the increasing sophistication of South Florida’s audiences, particularly during the season, make concerts like this a bit old-fashioned and perhaps a little shy of the mark when it comes to the kind of standards they now expect.
On the other hand, Brooks-Bruzzese has been at it for 30 years with the full Symphony of the Americas, and an audience for his kind of musical programming has remained with him all this time. His orchestra, indeed, has outlasted several other once-prominent performing groups such as the Florida Philharmonic, and that’s a kind of success it’s hard to argue with.