The USC Thornton Symphony played at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday. Conducted by Carl St. Clair, the principal conductor at Thornton, the performance featured keyboard studies faculty Bernadene Blaha and Kevin Fitz-Gerald as soloists during “Concerto in E-Flat Major for Two Pianos, K.365,” as well as an expanded orchestra beyond what is normally called for in “An Alpine Symphony.”
Wolfgang Mozart wrote “Concerto in E-Flat Major for Two Pianos, K.365” in 1779 while he was the court organist in Salzburg, Austria. The piece called for an orchestra and two solo pianists, marrying different styles he learned from his two-year European tour prior to gaining the position. The piece has two movements, both featuring the soloists prominently with a more scaled back orchestra to accompany it.
Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony” was composed in 1915 after the death of Gustav Mauhler in 1911. The piece takes the form of a tone poem, which tells the story of a trek through the Alps, beginning and ending in the evening. There are 22 unique parts of the symphony that detail the trek up to the top of the Alps and then back down again.
Mozart’s “Concerto in E-Flat Major For Two Pianos, K.365” had a vibrant tone, complemented by fast and precise playing. The USC Symphony acted as a framework for the two pianists, playing each note with purpose so as not to overpower the pair. The Symphony remained reserved as they played, concentrating on their parts so as to play them exactly.
As a result, the piece felt like more of an exercise in technicality than anything else. Every bow moved in sync, and each head bobbed in tandem. There was no room for emotion outside of the constraints of the piece because of its sheer complexity. As a result, the USC Symphony went through the motions of the music.
Nevertheless, the most impressive display during this segment of the concert was the playing of Blaha and Fitz-Gerald. While the parts written for them to play were very different from each other, the pianists were able to make them cohesive so that neither part outshined the other. At times, their fingers moved so quickly that one could scarcely see the notes being carried out. The pair played with an air of levity, sweeping over each key as if performing the steps to a ballet. Throughout the piece, Blaha and Fitz-Gerald had a unique chemistry, with one of the pianists periodically glancing up at their counterpart to ensure that they were both in tandem.
In contrast, “An Alpine Symphony” swelled with emotion, building from the suppressed and suspenseful “Night” to the triumphant “Summit” and then making its way back to “Night” again. Each of the 22 sections had its own personality, requiring the members of the orchestra to play quietly one moment and then thunder with noise the next.
The louder moments were particularly rewarding, with each instrumentalist allowing the swelling notes to move through their bodies, scarcely contained by the chairs they sat in. The horn section filled the air with jubilation in “Sunrise,” hailing the newly risen sun with a welcome that had the tenacity of a sporting event. During darker moments, each section turned to a lower register of notes to signify a foreboding danger.
Some of the softer moments, however, lacked dimension. The soft side of the piece was best when it was minimalistic. “Calm Before the Storm” created an air of suspense, as the violins barely moved their bows from side to side, waiting patiently for the storm to crash in. Similarly, “Night” relied on the efforts of some of the lower register instruments, as they whispered longingly for the coming crescendo, musically symbolizing the arrival of daytime.
The piece, which requires more players than a symphony normally would have, was at its best when it incorporated sounds that worked against the grain, thanks to the efforts of some of the percussion elements. During “Alpine Fields,” cowbells chimed in to mimic the path of animals, creating a surprising moment of humor and contrast. A rainstick was used to add an element of danger to “Thunder and Storm,” contributing to the chaos of the swelling strings and blaring horns.
Ultimately, “Concerto in E-Flat Major for Two Pianos, K.365” and “An Alpine Symphony” both demonstrated the talent and technical prowess of the USC Thornton Symphony. Both pieces were presented effortlessly and captivated the audience with their raw nature and emotional spirit.