Two USC Thornton alums discuss the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship, incoming fellow Malik Taylor and Juan-Salvador Carrasco, a member of the first cohort.
“Some things you never expect to happen,” said Malik Taylor (BM ’20). “This is one of them.”
Taylor, a French horn player from South Los Angeles, is talking about being selected as one of only four promising musicians for the second cohort of the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship, a program designed to increase diversity in American orchestras — while helping young musicians of color fulfill their dreams.
Launched in 2018, the LA Orchestra Fellowship partners the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA), the country’s largest African-American-majority youth orchestra; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), one of the world’s leading chamber orchestras; and USC Thornton, one of the country’s top music programs.
The groundbreaking program developed as a response to the fact that less than 5% of America’s orchestra members are African American, Hispanic or Native American, according to a 2016 report on diversity issued by the League of American Orchestras.
Taylor, violist Jay Julio Laureta, violist Wilfred Farquharson and cellist Myles Yeazell will spend three years in the intensive training program. While receiving artistic mentoring from LACO musicians and USC Thornton faculty, Fellows in turn will mentor ICYOLA musicians. They will rehearse and perform with LACO and the USC Thornton Symphony and prepare to win auditions in professional orchestras. In addition to financial compensation, benefits, housing and funds for audition travel, each Fellow will also earn a graduate certificate from USC Thornton.
“I’m so excited about this opportunity,” Taylor said. “I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us!”
Taylor started playing trumpet at Bret Harte Preparatory Middle School when he was 11. When the opportunity for private lessons through a UCLA outreach program arose, there wasn’t a trumpet player. But there was a French horn player, so Band Director Greg Martin suggested he switch instruments. Four months later, Taylor was accepted to play with the California All-State Band. A few months after that, he joined the All-City Band.
Martin also introduced Taylor to Robert Lee Watt. In 1970, he became the first African-American French horn player hired by a major American symphony orchestra; he was assistant principal horn with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 37 years. Taylor was 13 when he got the chance to play for Watt at his home.
“I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know the L.A. Phil, or anything about orchestras or the classical world,” Taylor said, “so I wasn’t nervous to play for him.”
After that first meeting, Taylor started weekly lessons with Watt that continued through high school and to this day. “I’m like a son to him now. I went to his house yesterday to play,” Taylor said. “And he’s been helping me throughout the years; he helped me get into Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and USC — which had always been a dream school.”
Taylor also joined ICYOLA when he was 13. He remains principal horn and has been mentoring ICYOLA musicians ever since he graduated middle school.
“I wanted to be a part of that orchestra because being a Black person, you don’t get to experience being in an orchestra with people that look just like you,” Taylor said. “Being a Black person, you’re usually the only one in the orchestra.”
While the lack of diversity in orchestras can be discouraging, Taylor said, “Programs like this Fellowship will help change it.” He has other ideas as well. “What needs to be done,” he said, “is players need to go into low-income neighborhoods and play for the kids, so they can look up to something. Another issue is kids don’t have the money for music. If we can donate instruments, or even a mouthpiece — kids can have a trumpet and not a mouthpiece — we need to help.”
Taylor has been going back to Bret Harte for years, playing for the students and introducing them to his instrument and classical music. He also talks to them about what it took to get to USC Thornton, where, he said, he learned so much from his peers, the faculty and playing in multiple ensembles, including the USC Thornton Symphony with conductor Carl St.Clair. “The faculty were a huge part because they were always there for us,” he said.
At Thornton, he also had opportunities to perform on films directed by USC School of Cinematic Arts students and to perform at Warner Bros. several times. Today, his dream is to win a seat in a major symphony orchestra and perform on movie soundtracks.
“I encourage the students to follow their dreams,” Taylor said. “When I see the kids, I remember sitting where they were, and I try to push them to never give up on music because it can always help you in the long run.”
The First Cohort
Musicians from the first cohort of the LA Orchestra Fellowship (2018-2020) have gone on to diverse pursuits. For instance, violinist Sydney Adedamola (BM ’18), who joined the Long Beach Symphony with other Thornton peers in 2018, is a 2020-2021 cohort of the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen LA Phil Resident Fellows program.
Cellist Juan-Salvador Carrasco (MM ’19) launched a forward-looking chamber music series, the Mixtape Series, with fellow Thornton graduates including violinists Michael Siess (MM ’19), Misha Vayman (GRCT ’20) and violist Nao Kubota (MM ’19) in 2019. The concerts, which feature musicians from USC Thornton and the Colburn Conservatory, bring classical and contemporary music together by linking, say, a Mozart quartet and a Beatles song thematically.
Carrasco came up with the idea during the Fellowship. “I was inspired by a model provided by LACO, where the musicians also work in studios and create their own series with friends,” Carrasco said. “I was drawn to how these musicians forged a career, and I was encouraged to think outside the box. In this day and age, being able to play in a large variety of contexts is really the way forward.”
With orchestra auditions and performances on hold due to the pandemic, Carrasco continues to arrange music and online concerts. “The Mixtape Series has been a life raft in a way for me,” he said. “Especially right now, it’s the one thing that’s keeping me sane as a musician.”
Carrasco said he is “very grateful for the Fellowship” which brought opportunities to perform with LACO musicians, continue his studies with Ralph Kirshbaum, whom he calls “one of the world’s most eminent teachers,” and mentor the kids of ICYOLA. “Over the course of two years, I watched many kids grow up and become more and more well versed in the orchestral repertoire, and that was really a treat,” he said. Plus, he expressed thanks for “a bit of financial security right before COVID hit.”
When auditions resume, Carrasco hopes to win an orchestra seat. He also wants to find more ways to teach and mentor young musicians. “My goal is to forge a career that is in line with all the aspects of what I was doing in the Fellowship actually.”