WETHERSFIELD - It started as a joke--something 3Penny Chorus and Orchestra founders Colin Britt and Arianna Abela would do just to mess around.
“We both have a fond love of pop music,” Britt said. “One of the things we’ll do sometimes for fun is sing along in an overly operatic style.”
It just so happens that they’re good at it.
Fast forward to the first round of the America’s Got Talent auditions in New York City. 3Penny, an ensemble of 55 musicians and singers from all over Connecticut, including Wethersfield trombone player and music teacher Jakob Voychick, had just taken the stage to some skepticism from the celebrity judges, particularly radio host Howard Stern, who told his colleagues that he “doesn’t like orchestral music” and that he planned to “just hit my X now and get it over with.”
Minutes later, following a rendition of the popular song “Call Me Maybe,” Stern had changed his tune.
“This is a wonderfully uplifting act,” Stern said. “We all had a great time.”
Needless to say, the group got the judges’ blessing to move onto the next stage of auditions in Las Vegas.
“Our act has the element of surprise to it, because a lot of people aren’t expecting a classical group to go up there and cover pop songs,” Britt said.
The judges and viewers of America’s Got Talent were not the only ones who have experienced that twist. The members of 3Penny itself, with the exception of Britt and Abela, who set up the meeting, were in for a shock when the group first got together to record its version of the song in September.
“We didn’t even tell them what the song was when we first met,” Britt said. “We rehearsed for like an hour and then recorded it.”
Within two weeks, the video had more than 2 million YouTube hits. As word continued to spread, 3Penny was pushed into the limelight. The group even went on the Today Show in New York City, but then, the momentum seemed to fizzle.
“It kind of went away for a little while,” Britt said. “A lot of that was because the popularity of the song was waning.”
Back at America’s Got Talent, it seemed to be catching on again. As the performers took their bow, chants of “play it again” could be heard throughout the audience. Apparently, they didn’t even have to--in the Las Vegas round of America’s Got Talent auditions, which aired July 16, the judges waived 3Penny on to the next round of the competition at Radio City without even having to hear them play again.
“It was, ‘Let’s do something fun with our friends.’ We never expected to be on national television,” Britt said. “We’re used to mostly smaller concert venues. We felt like rock stars. It was an electrifying experience.”
The members of 3Penny are not even that used to playing with one another. The group is, put it the way Abela did after the first audition, “dentists, designers, priests to be, retired teachers--everything,” moonlighting as volunteer musicians. Add to that the fact that they’re all scattered throughout Connecticut and it can be difficult to practice together regularly.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges we have is finding days when everyone can meet,” Britt said. “We’re not a group that performs as an ensemble very often, because it’s hard to get everybody together.”
But they make up for it.
“They’re all such good musicians, many who have been playing and practicing for years,” Britt said.
3Penny will head to Radio City Music Hall in New York City this month for the next auditions, which will take place July 30-Aug. 18.