Downey Symphony opens with a blast from the musical comedy past — The Downey Patriot

Two little girls and their mother with a big bouquet of red roses were spotted. “They are pupils of Man-Ling Bai, the piano soloist,” their mother said. “And they are going to present these flowers to her backstage, after she performs.”

The lobby lights dimmed and the gong rang, the signal that the performance was about to begin. Downey Society President Anthony Crespo welcomed the audience and thanked everyone for coming. Frank Kearns, local poet and owner with Carol of the bijou press Los Nietos, then paid tribute to Joyce as “a pillar of the Society and also a friend to artists.” The DAC- sponsored art show featured 94 pieces, in recognition of Joyce’s amazing age, and service. Frank acknowledged each artist as they stood in the audience.

After a rousing National Anthem, Music Director and Conductor Sharon took the mike and turned to the audience. “We are missing Joyce Sherwin tonight,” said Sharon. “It’s hard for me to speak, because she meant so much to me. But not just to me. She meant so much to the organization, and gave herself tirelessly. This next piece is by Meredith Wilson from The Music Man. Meredith and Joyce both grew up in Mason City, Iowa. And Joyce was proud of that.” 

“She conducted this very piece on this stage,” said Sharon, “several years ago when she won the auction for the baton. We want to honor her with a piece that’s not on the program. Not with sadness but in a spirit of fun. That’s how Joyce would have wanted it.”

With that, Sharon turned and with a full orchestral fanfare led them in Seventy-Six Trombones. Not every symphony concert opens with a blast from the musical comedy past, but this one did, with an arrangement that featured snare drums, cornets, “copper-bottomed timpani and big bassoons,” strings, and of course, those trombones. 

The program followed, with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Paganini was an 18th century rock star violinist and Rachmaninoff converted one of his Caprices into a piano tour de force, a concerto in a single movement. It was performed by Man-ling Bai, a young virtuoso from Taiwan. Her fingers sparkled on the keyboard even more than the sequins on her dress, and her hands often moved faster than the eye could follow.

On the patio in the intermission that followed, President Anthony said of the dazzling piano artistry, “Wow. That was amazing.” Tom Hutchinson, talking with Jorge and Maru Montero about the soloist, said, “Someone like her is priceless. Some musicians perform only for pay, but some do it also for the opportunity to perform with a fine orchestra.” Man-ling had shown just that.

The concert continued with the nostalgic strains of the ET piece, Williams’s complex music for the finale of the film, where the two friends say goodbye and the boy achieves lift-off, riding his bicycle into the air.

Stravinsky’s Fire Bird Suite capped the evening, full of plaintive folk melodies and fireworks when the enchanted bird appears. The audience left the Theatre into a night with flashes of lightning in the sky. 

Conductor Sharon makes it clear that, “This is your symphony orchestra, Downey,” as she threads her way before each performance, not across center stage but through the chairs of the musicians. She recognizes each section and special individual performance after each piece.  

Saturday’s concert was the first of three Downey Symphony’s subscription programs, the next being Jan. 21, 2023, and the final one, the big spring concert that will feature Latino-themed music and the auction bid, on April 8.

The audience was enthusiastic but small, something that all theatres and musical organizations have experienced as patrons slowly begin to come back after two years of Covid apprehension. It takes time to rebuild, back to where we were only a few years ago. The Symphonic Society continues to present quality programs, confident that Downey will support its Symphony, one of the finest in the region and a continued force for artistic greatness for almost 65 years now in the community.

For tickets for future concerts, contact; 8435 Firestone Blvd, Downey, CA 90241;phone (562) 861-8211.