ITALIAN HISPANIC HERITAGE CONCERT

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL -- A Tribute to Italian and Hispanic Heritage opened the Symphony of the Americas season under the direction of Maestro James Brooks-Bruzzese in capital fashion on Tuesday evening at the Broward Center's Amaturo Theater. Some of Italy's finest film scores provided the evening's musical appetizer and Cuban born pianist Jorge Luis Prats offered a remarkable performance of that most familiar of concertos - Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor - turning the oft played warhorse into freshly minted gold.

From Prats' thundering opening chords to octave spanning passages, this was pianism of the most astonishing variety. Prats can play the most rapid, difficult sections with absolute clarity and pinpoint accuracy. He captured Tchaikovsky's rhythmic syncopations with total exactness and fidelity to the score, never fudging a note, but he also brought poetry to the lyrical contrasts and unfurled a plethora of pianistic coloration. His hands were a blur as they raced across the keyboard in the big cadenza; yet, for all the thunder, there was musicality and subtle artistry in every bar under Prats' powerful fingers.

Principal flute Marilyn Maingart brought purity of tone to the initial statement of the principal subject in the second movement Andante simplice and Prats repeated the melody with exquisite tonal shadings. His elegant and aristocratic phrasing was seconded by Iris van Eck's sonorous solo cello. Prats' quicksilver lightness enlivened the central scherzo episode and his trills over the orchestral reprise of the main melody registered with delicacy and sensitivity.

The Allegro con fuoco finale ignited at lightning speed, Prats' dexterity a marvel. In the lyrical secondary theme, the violins' silken tone resounded warm and rich. Brooks-Bruzzese, who provided expert collaboration, splendidly controlled the building up of the crescendo at the movement's climax. The coda was replete with a final rapid fire demonstration of virtuosity by Prats. Bringing both imperial grandeur and pyrotechnical dynamism to Tchaikovsky's beloved score, Prats offered an object lesson in great playing.

Playing unaccompanied, Prats took the solo spotlight with two works by his countryman Ernesto Lecuona. Always in My Heart was sweepingly rhapsodic, Prats' varied dynamic palette and arpeggiated melodic contouring totally idiomatic. There were subtle variations of tone and phrasing in La Malagueña and Prats' rhythmic acuity and stylishness were interpretively unique. The pearly tones he drew from the keyboard made this evergreen vignette sound new and vibrant.

The Tchaikovsky concerto was preceded by an orchestral version of Sevilla from Suite Espagnole by Isaac Albéníz. Brooks-Bruzzese brought out the lively Spanish rhythms and instrumental coloration, the orchestra in top form.

The concert's first half was quintessentially Italian. Tenor Carlos De Antonis (who will be among the soloists at the Symphony of the Americas' Opera to Broadway program on February 9 and 14, 2016) opened the evening with In Ci Saro, a song written by Hollywood composer-arranger-pianist-producer David Foster and Walter Afanasieff for superstar Andrea Bocelli. De Antonis' ringing high notes and affinity for classical crossover were complemented with touches of real operatic clarion vocalism in the verismo manner. The brilliant pianism of Sergio Salani supplemented De Antonis' plangent version of this memorable melody. (De Antonis returned later in the evening to sing Happy Birthday to Barbara Finizio, wife of Symphony of the Americas President Paul Finizio.)

Nino Lepore, director of the Symphony of the Provence of Bari and a well traveled symphonic and operatic conductor, helmed a tribute to Nino Rota (1911-1979), Italy's most acclaimed film composer. Lepore opened with Theme for the Fallen American Soldier, a piece he co-wrote with Gioacchino Ripoli. Drum taps underlined a rhapsodic melody with an appropriate touch of gravitas. Lepore drew beautiful playing from the entire ensemble.

Turning to the music of Rota, the sheer variety of the composer's output was strongly displayed. (The prolific Rota wrote numerous operas, ballet scores, symphonic and chamber music works in addition to his acclaimed film music.) An opulent arrangement of highlights from Rota's score for Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather brought lush, high voltage playing, Lepore alert to the fleet changes of mood. The iconic trumpet theme rang out impressively and the combinations of strings, winds and harp were beautifully balanced and delineated.

Rota's most important cinematic collaborator was Federico Fellini, their artistic relationship spanning decades. I Vitelloni, a 1953 comedy-drama about a small Italian town during the post World War II era, found Rota indulging his passion for American jazz. The Vitelloni theme is snappy and quirky and Lepore led it with relish.

Night of Cabiria (1957) is one of Fellini's great films and Rota's romantic, expressive theme music captures the radiant presence of Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife and one of the great stars of Italian cinema. Lepore led a lustrous reading of wide ranging highlights from the film score with its swinging motifs and dance like motifs.

In 1963 Fellini conceived 8/2, an elaborate fantasy about the world of film making. The manic theme music mirrors the wild hallucinations of the director-protagonist as he struggles to film a epic about Italian life writ large while on the verge of a breakdown. The circus like tune is great fun and the players' incisive projection kept Lepore's fast pace all the way. Even without the movies, Rota's music is filled with great melodies and glorious orchestral writing, given full sway under Lepore's urgent baton.

With an exceptional soloist, a great performance of a landmark concerto and some of the finest music ever penned for the cinema, the Symphony of the Americas' season opener was festive indeed.

The Symphony of the Americas seson continues 8: 15 p.m. November 10 at the Amaturo Theater with the West Point Glee Club in a patriotic program plus works by Beethoven, Sibelius, Smetana and Mendelssohn. www.sota.org

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