Thornton Symphony Impresses with Sounds About Town

Saturday, January 27th, USC’s Thornton Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir performed Sounds About Town at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nearly all the seats were filled with students and families. It’s rare to see so many younger people at classical performances, but this time, Trojan pride won everyone over.

The USC Thorton Symphony Orchestra performed to a full-house on Saturday, playing pieces from Gershwin and Prokofiev, among other legendary composers. — Courtesy of Michael Dowlan

The USC Thornton Symphony Orchestra performed to a full-house on Saturday, playing pieces from Gershwin and Prokofiev, among other legendary composers. — Courtesy of Michael Dowlan

Audience members applauded excitedly as Carl St. Clair stepped onto the conductor’s podium. His faculty profile provides a comprehensive summary of his many achievements, but – for the sake of a quick highlight – let it be said that he has amassed successes all over the globe. Only three years ago, St. Clair conducted and recorded Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Berlin. During Saturday’s performance, St. Clair was energetic and invested in the music. The weight of each bass line and delicateness of the lighter areas were each distinctly visible in his body language.

Despite being advertised as a concert version of Porgy and Bess, the concert began with selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The opening number was the epic Montagues and Capulets. The piece lives in every extreme of sound; beginning with an increasingly loud cacophony of instruments, it moves fluidly between the clash of the two families and Juliet’s gentle innocence. The Thornton Symphony demonstrated great skill and control in their flawless rendition of the piece. Their sound filled every nook and cranny, leaving the audience in a mesmerized silence.

Ending the Prokofiev portion with Death of Tybalt, the orchestra moved onto the main performance of Porgy and Bess, an American folk opera written by George Gershwin. The story focuses on African American life in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1920s. The opera was not performed in its entirety, instead performed as an extended medley of sorts.

In the introduction, the Thornton Symphony beautifully captured the sound of bustle in a busy city. Bar set high, the orchestra continued with the same excellence. Their sound had all the body of a classical orchestra and the attitude of a jazz band, perfect for a Gershwin piece.

With a perfectly professional sound, the Thornton Symphony belies the fact that its instrumentalists are all undergraduate and graduate students. Each section was balanced so as to not over power another section or a soloist. On the subject of soloists, it’s not uncommon for them to sound hesitant or make mistakes due to nerves; however, in their Saturday concert, they all sounded practiced, clear and natural.

The same cannot be said for the vocal soloists, Kevin Deas and Angela Brown. Though obviously professional, with years of concerts under their belts, their contribution was far from stellar. To begin with, they attempted to act out their parts, but their emotions were exaggerated and campy. As far as singing chops are concerned, Brown has a large soprano voice with beautifully floating high notes; however, many times she was drowned out by the orchestra. Deas, a baritone, was difficult to hear as well, but did not have the saving grace of high notes. Both had issues with diction; it was difficult to understand what they were singing. Despite these shortcomings, the soloists had pleasant voices.

In contrast, the Thornton Concert Choir matched the orchestra’s excellence. Whether singing a chorus or a song in their own right, the choir made the concert hall ring. A large group with powerful voices, the choir complemented the orchestra, easily making themselves heard even over the loudest portions. Unfortunately, the choir wasn’t given much of a role as they mainly sang backup to the soloists. Hopefully in their next joint performance, the Thornton Concert Choir will have a greater role.

Near the end of the performance, the choir and Deas had some fun with the song It Ain’t Necessarily So. Deas exaggerated many vowels and imitated an old man while the choir mimicked his vocal antics. The comedic dynamic inspired laughter and applause in the audience.

When St. Clair lowered his arms a final time, the audience gave a standing ovation, cheering and whistling until the group gave in to an encore. They replayed Lawd, I’m on My Way, an extremely spiritual piece with a full bodied sound. As the audience hailed the performers, the soloists and the conductor congratulated each other with hugs and friendly handshakes. Even the students applauded their efforts.

One aspect of the concert to note was its length. The concert was performed without intermission for no longer than an hour and a half. The audience had no time to get bored and antsy, and instead stayed fully engaged.

USC’s Thornton Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir have proven to be engaging and greatly talented in their renditions of Romeo and Juliet and Porgy and Bess. Their hard work and dedication clearly showed in their performance. With never a dull moment, the Thornton musicians have created a showcase USC can be proud of.