2024 Outstanding Graduates: Part One

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 – Bachelor’s

Erika Poh (BM ’24)

Photo of a smiling person in pink light.
(Photo by Ally Wei)

USC Thornton Outstanding Graduate Erika Poh says her proudest accomplishment at USC Thornton was the premiere of her New Music for Orchestra composition, “Have You Seen Her,” with the USC Thornton Symphony at the Bovard Auditorium in February. It was the first orchestra piece she had ever written. 

“Have You Seen Her” was initially written as a song and evolved into an orchestra piece with voice, combining elements of show tunes and Mahlerian orchestral song. Poh was the vocal soloist at the premiere.

“It’s an example of what I’m interested in making in the future, orchestrating songs in a way where the orchestra doesn’t just play an accompanying role, but is the feature,” she said. “Performing and singing this alongside the Thornton Symphony was truly a dream and a proof of concept that this can work and sound really cool.”

Although she’s a classical major, she’s been actively involved in the popular music department, taking lessons and classes and collaborating with many pop majors. 

“I want to thank the professors who encouraged me to simultaneously pursue both pop and classical composition during my time here: Patrice RushenChris SampsonCamae Ayewa and Donald Crockett,” she said. “I think it was amazing to meet people from the different departments who perform and create different genres of music. This has definitely widened my musical vocabulary and changed how I perceive and create music now. I’m interested in producing music that breaks down the barriers of genre while still being informed by it.”  

Poh’s long list of accomplishments also includes two collaborations with the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, acting as a student coordinator for the Thornton and Kaufman Composer-Choreographer Collaboration, and performing in a benefit concert for Asian Americans on the USC campus in 2023. In addition, she has performed for dublab radio broadcasts.

In 2022, Poh released a seven-track EP, Teens in My Twenties. For her Summer Provost Undergrad Research Fellowship, she explored queer, feminist and minority identity for a new album. Then, as part of her senior Young Artist Project, she produced three singles that will be part of that new album and performed them at her senior recital. 

She says one of the greatest lessons she learned at USC Thornton was about life itself.

“The best part of my Thornton experience was meeting my professors and very talented and dedicated peers who eventually became my best friends. I’ve learned so much from them, not just about music, but about what living means, and about what it means to be kind and generous — and how music can be a part of that kindness,” she said. 

Photo of a smiling performer on stage with a symphony orchestra.
Feb. 23, 2024: Erika Poh premieres “Have You Seen Her” with the USC Thornton Symphony at Bovard Auditorium during the New Music for Orchestra concert. (Photo by Loreen Sarkis/Capture Imaging)

After graduation, Poh will return to her native Singapore and work for the Ministry of Education as a teacher. Later, she hopes to work on arts education policy and shape the national music curriculum. She also plans to continue composing and performing music in Southeast Asia and East Asia. 

“My dream is to work as an international and regional composer, producer and solo artist,” she said. “I hope to continue composing for orchestra and chamber music, while also producing pop songs — my biggest artistic aspiration is to merge both worlds and combine both classical and popular elements in a piece of music in a way that’s fun, tasteful and authentic to the message of the music. 

“My Thornton education has enabled me to do such pop-classical music projects. My time here at Thornton has also connected me to L.A. artists and collaborators that I want to continue working with in the future, and I am more confident in pursuing these projects because of the support of these collaborators,” she said. “I’m thankful for my time here at USC, and this will always be a time that I will look back on with fond memories.”

Chair of Composition Donald Crockett said: “Erika Poh exemplifies the multi-hyphenate artist we strive to support in Thornton — an outstanding student, a brilliant composer for orchestra, music theater and dance, a popular music artist, and not least a singer-songwriter, arranger and producer with an active performance career in her native Singapore. The composition faculty is very proud of Erika, and we wish her all the best as she returns to Singapore to continue to make waves in the music scene there and beyond.”

Outstanding Graduate – Bachelor’s

Anna Renton (BM ’24)

Photo of a smiling violinist holding their instrument outdoors.
(Photo courtesy of Anna Renton)

Violinist Anna Renton is a go-getter who formed the Meraki Quartet with fellow students in the Crowden Music Center’s Youth Chamber Music Program in Berkeley when she was 14. Two years later, they performed on NPR’s From the Top. The following year, they took home the bronze at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, the largest and one of the most prestigious chamber music competitions in the world.

When Renton came to USC Thornton for her undergraduate studies in violin, she continued to excel in performance, scholarship, service and leadership, earning the distinction of USC Thornton Outstanding Graduate. On top of her intense commitment to music, she also completed a minor in history, focusing on medieval studies, and was named a USC Renaissance Scholar for excelling academically while pursuing two widely separate fields of study. She was also nominated for valedictorian at USC.

At Thornton, Renton was embraced by a supportive community of professors and students. She called that one of the highlights of her time at the school.

“All of the professors I have worked with at this school have cared so much about my personal development as a student, as a musician and as a person,” said the Albany, Calif., native. “The students are also incredibly supportive of each other. Everybody I know is always rooting for each other and wants you to play your best.”

Renton played a harmonious part in that community, collaborating, performing and recording with composition, jazz, pop and production students and even helping jazz musicians put together ensembles to perform their big band compositions. She volunteered to play in composition, orchestration and theory classes, as well as in readings, showcases and recitals for fellow students. 

While she was USC Thornton Symphony concertmaster and member of the principal pool for three years, she was also out in the larger music community, regularly performing with the Downey and Pacific Symphonies and giving string sectionals for the Sycamore Chamber Orchestra, where she served as concertmaster from 2014 to 2020. She also spent her summers giving back to the Crowden community by coaching chamber music groups. 

A finalist in the 2023 Thornton Concerto Competition, Renton was also chosen for the USC Thornton Chamber Virtuosi for the 2024-2025 season. The premier chamber music ensemble of Thornton, this touring ensemble allows students and emerging professional artists to perform alongside faculty members. 

Photo of smiling college graduates wearing ceremonial sashes.
(Photo courtesy of Anna Renton)

For her senior Young Artist Project, she was inspired by long commutes with her father to youth orchestra where he played podcasts and lectures about music history and performance. She conducted research and analyzed Prokofiev’s Sonata in F minor, wrote a 45-minute presentation and performed the first two movements with her pianist and collaborator, An Hoang.

“I knew that if I was able to explain the historical context and some of the musical language in an accessible way, students that didn’t have any classical music background would be able to connect with the music,” she said of the project, which she has presented to one school so far.

Renton’s proudest accomplishment at Thornton was getting to sit assistant concertmaster of the USC Thornton Symphony, next to her professor, Glenn Dicterow, who is Jascha Heifetz Chair in Violin. 

“He is such a legendary violinist and performer, and he is my greatest musical inspiration,” she said. “When we were preparing for that concert, he pushed me to think more critically about the music than I ever had before. Every rehearsal I felt as though I became more attuned to the needs of the music, and how I could best serve the pieces as both a performer and as a leader. Getting to perform with him, and the other professors who played with us, was truly an extraordinary experience.”

Dicterow said: “I can sincerely say that Anna Renton is a very gifted violinist. Not only does she play her instrument at the highest possible technical level, but her innate musicality is absolutely exceptional. Anna also excels in both chamber music and orchestral performance. I have observed her often in both settings over the years and can attest to her innate ability to lead and inspire her fellow colleagues.”

After graduation, Renton plans to continue her studies with Dicterow, pursuing a master’s degree.

“I love to make music with others, and my goals for the future are to continue doing so in any way that I can. I know that by continuing my studies here at USC Thornton, I will continue to improve as an individual performer and as a collaborator from studying with my professors, and I will continue to make artistic connections with my peers and colleagues as we continue to work together.”

Outstanding Graduate – Master’s

Daniel Mangiaracino (BM ’22, MM ’24)

Photo of a musician wearing all black and smiling outdoors.
(Photo by Kyu Hun Han)

One of the reasons Daniel Mangiaracino chose USC Thornton was the opportunity — and, more importantly, the encouragement — to pursue cross-disciplinary projects. As an undergraduate, he majored in piano and minored in dance, and for his senior Young Artist Project, he composed and performed three pieces of music, choreographed dancers for each, and produced videos for his heavily trafficked YouTube channel Dein0mite.

As a master’s student at USC Thornton, he continued to explore collaborations across campus — with the Kaufman School of Dance, School of Cinematic Arts and New Media programs — and in the music community beyond campus. While studying with Director of Keyboard Collaborative Arts Kevin Fitz-Gerald, he also conducted research with Assistant Professor of Musicology Scott Spencer on dance and music as a conglomerate art form for his thesis and dissertation. For his exemplary performance, scholarship, service and leadership, Mangiaracino was named a USC Thornton Outstanding Graduate.

“Having the chance to converse, collaborate and connect with some of the best established and upcoming minds of the music industry — in classical, jazz and popular genres alike — has made my experience at Thornton one of a kind,” he said. “Being able to be trained by professors with decades of experience and applying that knowledge within an encouraging atmosphere with like-minded artists makes the years I’ve spent here priceless. This petri dish of experience and innovation has allowed me to develop as an artist and a person.” 

A dedication to music education for young people has been a theme in Mangiaracino’s career. He provides affordable online piano, theory and improvisation lessons for students with financial, physical or other limitations. And his YouTube channel Dein0mite, aimed at connecting young people to music, has over 1 million followers worldwide and garnered over 5 million views in 2023. 

A highlight of the past two years was assisting undergraduates with their Young Artist Projects.

“I had the absolute privilege of being asked to teach as an instructor for the Young Artist Project, the capstone course for classical Thornton seniors. As someone who went through this process back in my senior year, it was a very rewarding experience to aid others through their respective projects,” he said. “The best part was seeing those students grow as people throughout the year because of the challenges they were overcoming; I felt proud for them and with them!”

Mangiaracino also composed music for a showcase celebrating the opening of the new Glorya Kaufman Performing Arts Center, a theater in Los Angeles bringing the arts to a diverse audience and the clients of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.

Photo of a pianist performing at their instrument indoors.
(Photo by Jordan Ferrer)

Meanwhile, Mangiaracino has been a soloist danceur with Phoenix Ballet since 2020 and has been composer in residence and accompanist since 2021 (he is a native of Kansas, but his family currently lives in Phoenix). He was co-head composer in residence for the 2023 “Woodworks” showcase by FALCO Dance Company, for whom he also served as assistant choreographer. And he composed the score for the PBS documentary series, Portrait of a Landscape. Farther afield, he represented USC in performances at the Festival d’Academie Internationale Musique, the International Amalfi Music Festival and the International Lyon Festival.

“I want to thank my parents who have given me unwavering support through my schooling and are my rock when times are tough, and a huge thank you to my piano professor, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, for his priceless wisdom and mentorship for both music and life alike through these six years,” Mangiaracino said. “While I am being recognized for my growth and achievements at USC, it has taken the effort and support of my family, friends, colleagues and professors alike to bring me to who I am today, and I’m truly grateful to have such fantastic company here!”

Fitz-Gerald said: “Teaching Daniel has been a joy. His artistic and intellectual growth these last six years have been exceptional. He has a genuine and engaging personality that comes across clearly in his performances, which contributes greatly to his ability to relate to audiences, colleagues and students. Attention to detail, texture, color and style—these are all hallmarks of his innate and sensitive talents. His is a unique combination of skills and passions that promise exciting achievements now and in the future.” 

Next year, Mangiaracino will pursue his DMA in Keyboard Performance at USC Thornton. He hopes to continue to write music for film, games and dance, as well as perform at music festivals around the world. 

“I have quite a few dreams on my mind, some of which include composing, some of which include playing, and some of which include teaching,” he said. “Nonetheless, Thornton has truly set me up to be prepared for any opportunity shown to me as the program has taught a wide arsenal of professional skillsets. Most of all, Thornton has nourished a culture of learning that I will be taking with me everywhere I go.”

TAGS: Composition, Keyboard Studies, Popular Music, Strings,

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