Florida's classical scene has a 'Burgh feel

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Every winter, "snowbirds" from the Northeast flock to South Florida to escape the cold. This is one reason why Pittsburgh Opera suspends its mainstage productions between November and March, when a good number of its subscribers are away.

This year's weather being unusually harsh, there are more Northerners than ever here, with Pittsburghers visible among audiences and on stage. For classical music lovers, there are local and visiting orchestras, two opera companies in the vicinity and chamber music events.

With the demise of the Florida Philharmonic in 2003, there has been no major symphony orchestra in South Florida, although Miami-based New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas is a training orchestra that maintains world-class standards. Former Florida Philharmonic music director James Judd curates a classical music series in Fort Lauderdale's elegant Broward Center, with visits from the Estonian National Symphony, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Symphony of the Americas, Fort Lauderdale's resident chamber orchestra, is now in its 26th season, the longest surviving orchestra in South Florida. Conductor James Brooks-Bruzzese is a Duquesne University alumnus who provides a subscription series in Broward Center, along with smaller events in between the big concerts. A splendid concerto concert this month featured Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto alongside the Cello Concerto, Op. 85, of Elgar.

Mr. Brooks-Bruzzese is an excellent technician, always right with the soloist and sensitive to individual artists' nuances of phrasing. Ciro Fodere, a recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate, sailed through Rachmaninoff's thorniest writing with deft fingerwork, while Iris van Eck, the orchestra's principal cellist, was no less virtuosic, producing gorgeous tone in Elgar's work on an 1841 French-made instrument.

In previous weeks, Symphony of the Americas presented two events taking advantage of the unusual venues this city offers: a lunchtime opera recital aboard Holland America's Westerdam, docked for the day in Port Everglades; and "Serenade @ Sunset" -- a vocal-instrumental chamber music soiree involving the excellent soprano Courtney Budd, in the spectacular revolving Pier Top lounge of the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 Hotel.

Fort Lauderdale has no resident opera, but the area is well served by two nearby companies. Miami-based Florida Grand Opera gives eight performances of each of its mainstage productions, two of them in Broward Center. Palm Beach Opera, performing in Kravis Center less than an hour's drive to the north, attracts opera lovers from here as well.

Earlier this season, Susan T. Danis began her tenure as FGO's general director and CEO with a critically acclaimed revival of "Mourning Becomes Elektra," a 1967 opera by Fort Lauderdale resident Martin David Levy. She continued probing into less familiar repertory in January and February with Verdi's early "Nabucco" (Nebuchadnezzar), originally a metaphor for the Italian unification movement. The "Va, pensiero" chorus of Jews in the desert -- a second national anthem to Italians -- was encored with some in the audience singing along. This opera is marked by raw energy, and the cast, notably juicy-toned soprano Susan Neves (familiar to Pittsburgh Opera-goers) as the evil Abigaille, followed suit. In the title part, Dario Solari was less commanding, but Pittsburgh Opera Center veteran Kevin Short excelled with vibrant sound and strongly projected low notes as the Jewish priest Zaccharia.

Palm Beach Opera offered another early Verdi, "Macbeth," in a lively staging by Bernard Uzan and starring Westmoreland native and Pinza Foundation alumnus Michael Chioldi. He proved himself a powerful "Verdi baritone," rare in opera these days. Csilla Boross' cleanly vocalized Lady Macbeth lacked charisma, but Sean Panikkar, another Pittsburgh favorite, was an outstanding Macduff. An interesting sidebar was the presence of baritone Corey Wingard, who shuttles between Pittsburgh and Palm Beach as a member of both cities' opera choruses. Palm Beach Opera's "Barber of Seville" featured as Count Almaviva another singer familiar to Pittsburgh, David Portillo. He is a tenor to watch on today's opera scene.

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