By Danielle Jones & Aschdin Fink
Looking back on an amazing fall 2022 semester at USC Thornton.
New opportunities to collaborate and grow for students, alumni milestones and faculty accolades, exceptional events, nominations and awards — it was a semester to remember. Take a look back at some of the many highlights.
This year’s nominees include alumni Mak Grgić, and faculty members Seth Parker Woods of Wild Up and Bing Wang of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
An impressive group of USC Thornton faculty and alumni were nominated at the 65th GRAMMY Awards. In addition to at least 20 named nominees, many faculty and alumni from across the school were included in nominations as part of ensembles and orchestras, as members of an album’s production, and as music industry professionals representing nominated artists. The well-rounded list of accolades is just one reason why Billboard named USC Thornton a top music school.
USC Thornton is helping to redefine a new approach to teaching music history with “Music and Ideas,” a course required for all performance majors. Grouped together by theme rather than a chronological arc that covers a single musical genre, topics range from Bach to blues to K-pop, highlighting how different expressions of artistry throughout history speak to the common thread that connects all genres of music.
“You have a variety of ideas of what it means to be a musician, what it means to make music, from students with different goals and philosophies of music-making,” said assistant professor of musicology Lisa Cooper Vest, who debuted the course in 2016. “That’s extremely exciting and extremely challenging.”
Lisa Cooper Vest teaches a musicology class in Ramo Music Hall. (Photo credit: Sean David Christensen)
USC Thornton unveiled a new master’s degree in popular music teaching and learning, and Thornton graduates who are already teaching are adapting to the growing demand for music instruction beyond band, choir and orchestra. Alumni like Courtney Fortune, who teaches at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and Josh Gronlund, who teaches at Manual Arts High School, are discovering that offering high school courses in guitar, rock ensembles and music production is attracting new students.
Three music teachers at Manual Arts are Thornton alumni, including Megan Adcock ’17, Jesse Berent ’03, and Josh Gronlund, MM ’22. (Photo credit: Allison Engel)
Josh Kun, an award-winning music historian, critic and curator, was named interim dean at USC Thornton. Kun, a professor and chair in cross-cultural communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is an expert on the intersection of arts, culture and politics, with an emphasis on music.
“As a scholar, journalist and curator whose career has been dedicated to the study and performance of music, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to lead this community, if even for a limited time,”said Kun.
Seth Parker Woods performs “Difficult Grace”. (Photo credit: Richard Termine/92nd Street Y)
Among new appointments, Yura Lee was named the Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld Endowed Chair in String Instruction. As an educator, she has expressed that she strives to make learning for her students a process that sparks curiosity beyond music, and as a well-rounded person. “Hopefully my whole being will encourage them to follow a path in music and find their own happiness in it, because when you see somebody you look up to passionately follow their path, that energy will rub off,” Lee said. “I hope to leave a legacy of fulfilling life to my students — not just good music.”
USC Thornton faculty members Yura Lee & Andrew Norman. (Photo credit: Brian Feinzimer/Craig T. Matthew)
Former faculty member and composition alumnus Andrew Norman (‘02, MM ‘04) will return to USC Thornton as associate professor composition in fall 2023. Norman is one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation as a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music. “One of the things I really love about the Thornton School is that it is a very open and creative place, and it’s a place where people are asking some really big questions: What is music? What is art? What is creativity? And what does that mean in the 21st century? We’re always asking new questions about how we teach, why we teach and what we teach. And those are all really exciting questions,” Norman said. “Thornton is a place that is always challenging our notions of the art form and pushing it forward, and I really want to be part of that conversation.”
Photo credits from left to right, top to bottom: Pardy (Bardy) Minassian, Paulus van Dorsten, Nikko LaMere, David Riccobono.
Various alumni began new positions, from program directors to principal players, proving that USC Thornton alumni go on to become leaders in the music field in a vast amount of ways. Among many new positions, Percussion program alumnus David Riccobono (MM ‘19) was named assistant principal timpani/section percussion with the LA Philharmonic.
Composer/performer Rohan Chander (MM ‘22) won the prestigious Gaudeamus Award with his identity-driven electronic musical performance. Chander credits his composition program professors at USC Thornton positively influenced his craft and technique.
“Working with the professors within the composition program, it was this engagement with composition as this greater artistic practice that wasn’t married to writing for specific people or instruments. It was like, you’re composing by virtue of thinking critically and creating works that were in these hybrid spaces or dealing with multiple mediums,” Chander said. “It encouraged me to do more of that kind of work.”
Remi Wolf (BM ’18). (Photo credit: Alma Rosaz)
USC Thornton popular music program alumnae Jensen McRae (BM’ 19) and Remi Wolf (BM ’18) had a momentous past few months. McRae had a profile published by MTV in October. Wolf released her debut album Juno the same month. In a recent article from SPIN Magazine, Wolf reflected on her recently sold-out U.S. tour, a genre-breaking approach to music and future ideas.
Classical guitar program graduate certificate alumna Pardy Minassian is working to recover lost songs. Awarded a project grant from the Calouste Gyukbenkian Foundation, Minassian created a multimedia series focused on unpublished Armenian folk songs. Searching the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, she plans to transcribe the forgotten musical pieces related to the Armenian genocide and make the songs publicly available.
“If nobody had collected these songs, they’d have just been forgotten. These songs are a major part of Western Armenian culture. I’m just trying to bring them back to life,” Minassian said.
USC Thornton students met new experiences and opportunities to further their musical careers. During the summer, Thornton Student Ambassadors traveled domestically and internationally for internships and performances. Whether it was interning with local composers, music festivals or performing in a chamber ensemble in Europe, the students related that the summer helped them grow as musicians and people. “College students, especially musicians, see no room for error. Everything has to be perfect, or you’re not cut out to be here. The internship made me realize these old lies aren’t true,” sophomore composition major Ella Kaale said. Perfection is not an attainable standard, but success, satisfaction and happiness are.”
In the first month of the semester, music industry program graduate students volunteered at the Black Music Coalition’s Music in Action Awards Gala as part of associate professor of practice Kevin Lyman’s courses. Graduate students Dalanie Harris and Zachariah Moul related that Lyman’s classes and discussions provide extensive insight into the industry by applying current happenings as lessons as well as fostering professional connections. “It was really special to just connect further and build those relationships with industry professionals,” Moul said. “And that’s all as a result of my first semester here at USC Thornton through Kevin Lyman [and] what an incredible professor he is.”
Photo credits from left to right: USC Thornton music industry, USC Photo/Gus Ruelas, 6th Tureck International Bach Competition – YouTube Channel.
USC’s new, student-led mariachi band brought back a Trojan tradition this semester. Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC captivated audiences on campus, at major city events and on television with lively performances. “El Rey,” “Si Nos Dejan,” “Acá Entre Nos” and “Hermoso Cariño” are some of the many standards in the repertoire of the three-dozen-plus USC students who make up Mariachi Los Troyanos de USC.
Third-year choral music doctoral student Laura Leigh Spillane has been promoted to conduct the Concerto Ensemble with the National Children’s Chorus. The National Children’s Chorus is a world-leading children’s choir, empowering young people to effectively lead society toward artistic excellence.
Thornton Keyboard Studies Department doctoral student Katelyn Vahala (’18, MM ’21) was named a Bach prize winner in piano at the 2022 International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition held July 12-23 in Leipzig, Germany. Vahala is a soloist and dedicated chamber musician, earning the winning prize at the 2016 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition as part of the youngest ensemble to ever compete.
In late September, a USC Thornton choir ensemble consisting of students and alumni – coordinated and rehearsed by alum and Grammy Award nominee Tehillah Alphonso (BM ‘20) – joined Pentatonix in a headlining performance at the Hollywood Bowl. Alumnus Ben Bram (BM ‘10) and Pentanox’s Scott Hoying have worked together since their student days, winning multiple Grammy Awards together.