2024 Outstanding Graduates: Part Two

By Julie Riggott

The five Outstanding Graduates of the Class of 2024—Erika Poh, Anna Renton, Daniel Mangiaracino, Arisa Makita and Katelyn Vahala—share their favorite memories from Thornton, lessons they’ve learned and their future plans.

Outstanding Graduate – Doctoral

Katelyn Vahala (BM ’18, MM ’21, DMA ’24)

Photo of a pianist seated at their instrument.
(Photo by Van Velden Photography)

Pianist Katelyn Vahala caps off three degrees at USC Thornton with the distinction of being named a USC Thornton Outstanding Graduate for her exemplary performance, scholarship, service and leadership. 

“Through these 10 wonderful years, the best part of my experience has been getting to meet and work alongside so many amazing faculty members and students,” she said. “I feel extremely fortunate to have built many of my lifelong musical partnerships and friendships at Thornton. I am especially thankful to my teacher, Lucinda Carver, for all of her guidance and wisdom in shaping the musician and person I am today.”

Throughout her Thornton career, Vahala’s accomplishments have been impressive. For instance, as an undergraduate Trustee Scholar, she won a bronze medal in the 2016 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition as part of the youngest ensemble ever selected for the Fischoff Senior Division final round. 

In her master’s program, she won first place and the contemporary music prize at the 2019 Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition; she also toured Holland and Slovakia with the International Holland Music Sessions. 

And during her DMA program, she was the 2021 winner of the USC Thornton Concerto Competition and a finalist in the 2022 Leipzig International Bach Competition. 

But prizes aren’t what drives Vahala. 

“I have an amazingly supportive family who love classical music (shout out to my Grandma Carolyn!), and making them proud by far outshines any achievement that I can list on a resume,” said the Pasadena, Calif., native.

In fall 2021, when she decided to enter the USC Thornton Concerto Competition, Vahala prepared Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major. 

“I had no expectations to win the competition and just wanted to have the opportunity to play through an entire concerto in a performance setting,” she said. “Performing this concerto with the USC Chamber Orchestra the following spring is one of my proudest memories from my DMA studies.”

“On a personal note,” she added, “this whole experience was also very meaningful for me as my great aunt, Barbara Jury, also a USC alum, had recently passed in November 2021. Who she was as a person, her genuine love for classical music and her enthusiasm for all of my studies at USC continue to be a huge source of inspiration.”

“Insert Music Here”

Vahala has enriched the musical community on campus and beyond by co-directing two concert series. Insert Music Here and Wicked Goat offer free concerts designed to capture new classical music audiences with innovative approaches to programming and settings. 

Vahala co-founded Insert Music Here with Sam Kinsey (a Trojan with bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and civil engineering). Combining their love of music and nature, the series’ first concerts in 2022 brought the concert hall to the outdoors for performances at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, in the San Gabriel Mountains at the Mt. High resort, at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, at the USC Village Arts Performance Series and more. 

Photo of a pianist performing outdoors.
(Photo by David Zheng Zhong)

To accomplish this, they converted a cargo van and built a system to transport a hybrid grand piano to outdoor locations. The van’s off-grid electrical system and solar battery power the piano.

One of the solo piano programs Vahala performed was Bach to Nature, featuring music by J.S. Bach interspersed with music directly inspired by nature. Insert Music Here also has commissioned works by composers speaking to climate change.  In the Silent Wood, Deep River concert program, Vahala performed with cellist Annie Jacobs-Perkins (BM ‘18) and co-commissioned two new works for cello and piano by composers Stratis Minakakis and Daniel Temkin (DMA ‘16). The team is currently developing an artist retreat program, which will allow composers to use the van as a mobile music studio.

Simultaneously, Vahala co-curates with Nic Gerpe (DMA ’12) another concert series at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music (PCM), where she has been on the faculty since fall 2022, teaching a studio of 20 students from age six to adult. Started by Gerpe in 2022, The Wicked Goat series aims to make classical music accessible to young people by programming immersive concerts featuring contemporary music and multimedia experiences.

Vahala performs extensively beyond her concert series as well. Well-known in L.A.’s classical and contemporary music scene, she is invited to participate in leading concert series, such as Piano Spheres, Tuesdays@MonkSpace with the Brightwork New Music Ensemble, Da Camera Chamber Music Society, and Music at the Mansion. In May, she will give the world premiere of a solo piano work commissioned from Corey Dundee (who earned his master’s in composition at Thornton) at a Piano Spheres emerging artist recital.

A passionate chamber music musician, she regularly collaborates with Thornton alumni and graduate students. She played multiple times for Thornton’s Music@Rush Hour, choosing to spotlight works by female composers. In addition to being a recording artist for the L.A. Philharmonic’s Composer Fellowship Program for high school students, she is a collaborative keyboard artist for students at PCM and the Colburn Music Academy and an adjudicator for local competitions.

Vahala’s mentor and chair of Keyboard Studies, Lucinda Carver, said: “Katelyn is a superb musician, a brilliant scholar and a truly wonderful human being. I consider her future to be incredibly bright, and I look forward to watching her career continue to unfold.”

After graduation and a road trip to Colorado for hiking, biking and exploring nature, Vahala looks forward to continuing to teach at PCM and taking Insert Music Here in new directions, with her USC Thornton experience to guide her.

“My time at Thornton has, above all else, taught me the importance of being a generous colleague, putting positive energy out into the world, and learning when to push myself outside of my comfort zone.”

Outstanding Graduate – Graduate Certificate

Arisa Makita (GCRT ’24) 

Photo of a musician holding a euphonium.
(Photo courtesy of Arisa Makita)

Arisa Makita is the only euphonium player at USC Thornton. But that alone is not what makes her exemplary. Not only did she win the USC Thornton Concerto Competition in 2023, but she also proved to be one of the best euphonium players in the world, winning second place at the 50th International Tuba Euphonium Conference (ITEC) in the Euphonium Artist Division that same year. Her excellence in performance, scholarship, service and leadership during her Graduate Certificate program earned her the distinction of USC Thornton Outstanding Graduate. 

“I’ve had many treasures since I came to USC: teachers, studio mates, friends. They have always been supportive and inspiring,” Makita said. “I have acquired musical skills and a deep understanding of repertoire from my teachers, which have contributed to my accomplishments such as winning prizes and receiving opportunities as a soloist.”

The highlight of her two years at Thornton was the Concerto Competition, when she performed “Pantomime” by Philip Sparke with the USC Thornton Symphony, Carl St.Clair conducting. 

And the ITEC was a pivotal moment in her musical life: “Winning second prize at ITEC fueled my desire to become a soloist.” 

The euphonium is a medium-sized, conical-bore, tenor-voiced brass instrument similar to a tuba. As the sole player at USC, Makita was in demand with large student ensembles and chamber music groups. She participated in the University Concert Band’s spring concert in 2023 and was asked to perform as a soloist at their 2024 concert. As a member of the USC Bass Tuba Quartet, she advanced to the semifinals at the ITEC. She also led the formation of the Winds and Percussion department’s first Euphonium Quartet at USC Thornton, an ensemble that had several public performances. 

Makita also caught the attention of the Consulate of Japan in Los Angeles and was invited to talk about the euphonium and her musical activities. In 2023, she was invited to play a guest artist recital at the University of Redlands.

Photo of three musicians smiling together indoors.
Arisa Makita with former professor Toru Miura and USC Thornton professor Jim Self at ITEC 2023. (Photo courtesy of Arisa Makita)

This summer, she will play a solo recital at the International Women’s Brass Conference and premiere David Conte’s sonata for euphonium. Having won the Los Angeles Brass Alliance Competition, she will also perform as a soloist at their concert next year.

Douglas Tornquist, adjunct instructor in Winds and Percussion, said: “We were fortunate to have Arisa as our student. During her time with us, she excelled in every way possible. She was a constant inspiration to our students, always performing at the highest level. In addition, she was selected as one of the rare entrants to USC’s Artist Diploma program. She continues to be an artistic beacon, a dedicated and accomplished performer of the first rank, an example for our students and an ambassador for USC.”

Makita earned a full scholarship for the Artist Diploma program and will start in the fall. The Artist Diploma program is the most prestigious performance program USC Thornton offers, limited to four students who have demonstrated great potential for a successful career as a soloist. 

“My dream and goal is to become a soloist and spread the beauty of the euphonium worldwide through solo recitals,” she said. “I aspire to premiere many euphonium solos and collaborate with talented artists. The euphonium is not just for the band; people love its sound when they hear euphonium solos.”

“There are many amazing musicians in the Thornton community, and I look forward to collaborating with them,” she added. “Additionally, in my two years at Thornton, my teachers have provided invaluable musical ideas and experiences that have greatly contributed to my growth. I’m excited to continue working with my teacher.”

TAGS: Keyboard Studies, Winds and Percussion,

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