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USC classical musicians back up Elton John at the Emmys

The 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 22 were enlivened by Elton John performing “Home Again,” a song from his new album.

John’s performance on the Emmy stage was enhanced by backup from 14 vocalists from the USC Thornton School of Music Chamber Singers and four students from the USC Thornton Brass Ensemble playing tuba, trombones and trumpet. The Trojans were directed by Jo-Michael Scheibe, USC Thornton’s chair of choral music.

It was an encore of sorts for the USC musicians, who backed up John for several songs, including “Home Again,” during a special concert on Sept. 16 at Bovard Auditorium on the University Park Campus. At that concert, 19 string players and a harpist from the USC Thornton Symphony also accompanied John on a few other songs.

On Sunday night, 6,000 celebrities and television industry leaders sat in the audience at the Nokia Theatre at LA Live. Host Neil Patrick Harris estimated that the broadcast was seen by 30 million viewers around the world.

John’s appearance, one hour into the telecast, was billed as a tribute to the legendary entertainer Liberace. Behind the Candelabra, a biopic about the late pianist, was nominated for 15 Emmys and won several of the awards. John was introduced by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, the stars of the HBO film. After the song, Douglas recognized “the amazing young musicians from the USC Thornton School of Music.”

Jenny Wong, a USC Thornton Chamber Singers soprano, said it was “heartwarming” to be publicly thanked by Douglas.

“At an event as high profile and involving so many celebrities as the Emmy Awards, it is possible to feel that you don’t matter,” she said. “Yet the celebrities and crew always made us feel that we were important and treated us as professionals.

“Elton John’s four professional backup singers were especially sweet to us and always made encouraging small talk,” she added. “Being amid so many talents in the industry was a complete privilege, and we could not be more thankful as some of the biggest names on television joked with us backstage, took photos of us and gave us thumbs up.”

Bass vocalist Jack Delac observed that “one cool thing was doing what we love for a bunch of famous actors and actresses who love doing the same exact thing — performing. This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am forever grateful.”

Delac said that one of the best things about the experience at both the Emmys and Bovard concert were the mic checks with John and music arranger Adam Chester ’85.

“Singing at these mic checks was almost as if we were jamming with Elton and Adam, and I feel like we got to associate more with these superstars, rather than just seeing them off in a distance,” he said. “Also, Elton John was just a class act. After each mic check he proceeded to find each and every one of us and shake our hands. Concluding each performance, he also never neglected to thank us for our work.”

Scheibe was also very complimentary of the student musicians: “I have a wonderful ensemble, and I am very proud of them,” he said.

The USC Thornton musicians spent their entire day at the Emmys, beginning rehearsals at 8 a.m. for a telecast that ended at 8:10 p.m.

USC Thornton Dean Robert A. Cutietta said that due to the music school’s location, quality of musicians and industry connections, high-caliber professional opportunities for students occur regularly. Still to come in this semester, Cutietta said, USC Thornton students will have opportunities to play both with the Beach Boys and with James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera.

“These collaborations are a way to differentiate ourselves from every other music school,” he said.

The USC Thornton instrumentalists at the Emmys were Sarah Bauza on trumpet, Brandon Davis on tuba and Taylor Hughey and Chris Grijalva on trombone. The USC Thornton Chamber Singers were represented by sopranos Wong, Karen Miskell and Katelyn Isaacson; altos Krysta Sorenson, Serena Eichhorn and Curran Mahowald; tenors Nolan Frank, Ben Lee, Karsten Longhurst and Ryan Jones; and basses Davy Chinn, James Laff, Nathan Fryml and Delac.

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USC classical musicians back up Elton John at the Emmys

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