The USC Thornton Symphony took the stage at Bovard Auditorium on Friday, filling the air with notes both tragic and victorious. Titled “The Triumph of Life,” the concert included symphonic works by two heralded composers: Allegro maestoso from Symphony No. 2 in C Minor by Gustav Mahler and Symphony No. 5, Op. 100 in B-flat Major by Sergei Prokofiev.
To Jonathan Sie, a second year master’s student studying trombone performance, the title was the perfect way to express the power of music.
“With all the emotion that goes on in the music, we’re really just saying something that can’t be said in words,” Sie said. “It’s the triumph that we have as humans, to participate in this unique craft.”
The concert was dedicated to the memory of Emeritus Professor and former Director of Conducting Studies Daniel Lewis, making the sentiments of its title fitting for several reasons. The spirit of the late professor was felt early and often in the auditorium, with Thornton School of Music Dean Robert Cutietta kicking off the evening with a few words of remembrance for the beloved musician.
Resident conductor Sharon Lavery said she had the honor of working with Lewis at an international conducting workshop in Connecticut, and his presence made a big impact on her. She cites his student Jung Ho Pak as her reason for choosing to study at USC, recognizing the talent level of all who had been under Lewis’ tutelage.
“[Lewis] was one of the reasons I decided to pursue conducting as a major,” Lavery said. “I found him to be incredibly motivational. He inspired all of the conductors.”
With Lewis on the mind of audience members throughout the theater, the orchestra launched into a moving performance of Mahler’s second symphony. Punctuating extended stretches of sorrow with brief yet roaring periods of jubilance, it was a dynamic performance from start to finish.
Conductor Carl St. Clair took charge throughout the evening, directing his orchestra with gusto while ensuring no detail was overlooked. Spending most of the symphony with arms highly animated in tune with the music, he closed with a lengthened pause for silence, remaining motionless while allowing the audience a moment to process what they just heard.
“He can inspire the orchestra in ways that is rarely defined among conductors,” Sie said of St. Clair’s style of conducting. “He has the unique gift for internalizing everything in the music, and then being able to bring out exactly what he wants from every person in the orchestra.”
After leaving the stage during a brief intermission, St. Clair returned to enthusiastic applause and signaled for the start of Prokofiev’s symphony. Written in 1944, the piece was inspired by the then-recent Allied victories in World War II, creating a tone that is optimistic yet still fraught with the turmoils of war.
Oboist and second year master’s student Theodosia Roussos found parallels between playing in the orchestra and fighting the good fight on the battleground, citing the need to maintain composure in critical situations.
“Being in an orchestra is a little like being a soldier,” Roussos said.
“You have to be courageous, but really calm under pressure. I try to just feel nothing, so that when I’m playing the music, I can feel everything, and not be distracted by anything that’s going on in my own life.”
The orchestra performed all four movements from Prokofiev’s symphony, telling a complete story with a full range of emotions. With less tragedy than the previously performed work by Mahler, the audience was held in a state of suspense while the narrative developed, eventually culminating in an explosive peak that validated the journey.
If the ensuing applause was any indication, it was a masterful performance throughout, and further proof that sometimes, music says far more than words ever could.